Due to circumstances, I spent my last night in Brisbane on the street.
I wasn't too worried. My stuff was in a locker and I had an early train outta there. I didn't have much money left, but I usually stay awake all night before travelling so I figured I'd just hang out in a park near the station. I called my Watcher (a friend who I always tell when I'm doing stuff like this, so that someone knows where I am and can call for help if I disappear).
I wandered around looking in the shops until they closed, then went to the park to find a spot to settle in. But as I approached I saw a crowd of people on the street corner. I wasn't sure who they were, and at first hesitated in approaching them. Then I saw clearly what was going on - it was a couple of food vans with a bunch of volunteers in red shirts, and a big crowd of homeless people.
As I walked up one of them gave me a huge smile and asked me if I wanted a coffee. I perched awkwardly on the edge of the crowd as he went and got them. He brought back three coffees, two for me and one for himself, and sat talking to me. Slowly I realised he wasn't one of the workers, but one of the clients - his red shirt helped him blend in, as did his kind attitude. We talked for an hour or so, about our lives, hopes and dreams, the books we liked, our philosophy - life, the universe and everything. Several times he jumped up to get our cups refilled, one time coming back with some packets of chips. I shared my tobacco with him.
I had never been up to a food van before, and I looked around in curiosity. Actually, the van next to us just served hot drinks and soup. I was really struck by the attitude of the volunteers. Their deferential manner reminded me of waiters in a high-class restaurant. They never showed any distaste for us, just friendly helpfulness. You want two coffees? Extra milk? A spoonful of chocolate in that? Not hot enough? More sugar? No worries, sir, we are here to make it just how you like it. There was no expectation that we should be grateful, that we should be mindful of the charity done for us. There was simply an overwhelming sense that we were worth it, that we deserved coffee, that we deserved dignity, that we deserved inclusion and and acceptance, that we deserved to just chill out and have something the way we liked it for a change, since god knows the life of a homeless person is rarely how they like it and rarely comes with the level of respect we were given that night. They served us with a gentle grace that showed us, more than anything they said, that to them, we had worth and we deserved respect. And as a couple staffed the coffee machines, another dozen or more fanned out amongst the crowd, sitting with people, talking to them, listening to them, laughing with them. It was clear that it wasn't just about the coffee.
As the crowd was breaking up, I found myself on a bench next to one of the workers. I told her that they were doing a great job and I admired them for it. She asked how I was. I confessed that I didn't belong here, that I wasn't really homeless - I felt like a fraud for taking advantage of their services when I could have found a place to sleep, when in fact I knew I had a place to sleep somewhere and I had left it by choice. She didn't seem to care, didn't seem to think I was undeserving. She asked about my travels. Suddenly it all came flooding out. How I had started by running away from my troubles, and ended by chasing my demons. How I was on my way to face them, to conquer them. How I was alone and afraid. When I finished speaking, she turned to me. Her eyes radiated love and compassion. She wished me good luck, and I knew she meant it. I left with my head held a little higher than I arrived, feeling a little more confident and a little warmer in the heart.
I was deeply and profoundly moved by this encounter. When you are homeless, in a way you become invisible - no one wants to see you, and you can end up feeling somewhat set apart from the human race. Even when people do see you, it's usually with distaste, as they wrinkle their nose and gather their purse or their children tighter. It's difficult to feel that you have any value when this is your life. It wasn't my life; but I had walked up to a group of people thinking I don't belong here, I'm a fraud, I don't deserve this service, they won't welcome me here. - when in truth, those are the very reasons that I did deserve it.
The organisation is called Rosies. I tried to find out who they were affiliated with, but didn't get much answer. The truth is they are a Christian organisation, but they didn't want to mention it - their religion isn't the point, the service they provide is. When I arrived home, I looked them up on the web. This is from their website:
We at Rosies understand homelessness, not in the absence of safe and secure shelter that is described as houselessness, but rather… the condition of emotional emptiness and isolation. We see that a person can be sucked into the condition of homelessness due to a deprivation of basic emotional needs like love, acceptance, belonging, and achievement. So it is not primarily physical….something that can be seen and observed…. but rather…. an intangible condition of hopelessness, sadness and emptiness that is around us in the streets and even in our families.
Our understanding that people are created in the image of God with human dignity enables us to offer a unique service to the most abandoned and marginalised. The coffee and doughnuts handed-out is the means used to be present with them, to walk the path of homelessness with them, to offer a listening ear. So it is not mere charity that we offer but more importantly human rights… the right to be accepted, the right to belong, the right to be respected, and the right to speak and to be listened to. With a non-preaching, non-judgemental approach we fulfill our mission on the streets by making love real, by putting faith into action. Rosies volunteers empower patrons by respecting their dignity and re-building their self-esteem.
If this is Rosies mission, they fulfilled it that night with kindness and compassion, and they continue to do so every night on the streets of Brisbane.
Rosies friends on the street