Helen McIntosh reflects on a social justice immersion camp:
In the last week of May, Rev. Sandy Boyce ran a session on Homelessness for 66 High School students and their teachers from a Victorian Catholic College. This is the third year that we have assisted in this four day Social Justice Camp run from Nunyara, a Uniting Church campsite. My involvement in a Pilgrim programme where we open our Church Lounge each day from 10 until 2 for people who want a safe place with hospitality, gave me reason to also be involved. Many of the people who join us in the lounge understand firsthand the reality of being without safe housing, and so I asked three of them to help run this session: Pam* and two brothers.
They agreed, but one of the brothers later had an exacerbation of health issues and not uncommonly this had resulted in their temporary accommodation being under threat. Thus on the day the students were due, only Pam arrived. She came an hour before her involvement was scheduled. She was nervous and scared, but keen to carry through, so she decided to head to the nearby Adelaide Market to walk.
The programme began at 1pm by the students describing what they knew of homelessness. It appeared not to be something that had impacted on them but words such as men, trolleys, lonely, dirty, and unshaven were recorded on the white-board. Sandy then had them leaving the hall with maps of the CBD, in groups of about 10 with a teacher. Each group had two or three different streets to explore. Their task was to imagine that they had just arrived off the Bus from Melbourne arriving in nearby Franklin St. with no plans, no contacts and very little money. Not an uncommon scenario. They would then consider where they could sleep, find toilets, something to eat. They were to return by 2pm.
In this intervening time I was in the lounge and at 1:45, a tall man came into asking for the Hall where the homelessness programme was being held. I had no idea of his connection to this session…but a small conversation later discovered he was a rough sleeper. He had arrived from Melbourne only a few days before and was sleeping out in the parklands. He would like to help by telling his experience. My inner voice was perplexed and the word ‘risk’ was coming to the fore. But something decided me to ask him (Peter*) to join us. He said that he had just been at the Market. There he met Pam and she had told him about the session and she had invited him. I have learnt over time of the network amongst people who have at times been homeless and their naming of who they can trust whether individuals or organisations.
The students returned with a vast array of experiences. Some had found cardboard to sleep under. But where to go? Were covered carparks safe? Should one be near a security camera or not? Those that went to the market thought it would be easy to steal food, but even if they were really hungry should they? Some found a ‘Housing SA’ office and were given a comprehensive information bag about facilities and where to find what they needed. Others went to a Church welfare Agency and felt they received a very cool reception. A couple of lads went to the Richmond Hotel where the managers there could not be have been kinder. One group mentioned the stark dichotomy between homeless people sleeping in parks which were overlooked by grand 5 star Hotels. The white-board was now crammed with their insights and experiences.
Pam, who had returned and Peter, had heard all of this then took the mike for 20 minutes. One could have heard a pin drop. They affirmed the students and added information and a reality from their own lived experiences. Peter asked the students whether they wanted to ask questions. The questions they asked included…what is the best way to help homeless people? And if you get accommodation and a job does the stigma of having been homelessness go with you? And if you went for a job how easy is it to get one when you can’t get dressed properly because you don’t have a home or clean clothes? etc. Pam and Peter left, to the accompaniment of hearty and heartfelt applause. Pam was pleased that in talking to the group she had done something that she never dreamed she could do.
Sandy then moved the conversation to how their experiences resonated with stories they knew from the Bible, and related their experiences to the story of The Good Samaritan
At the conclusion the students were asked to share what they had learned. Their responses were moving. They talked about homelessness with compassion, concern and insight. But they also talked about the impact that this ‘oh so brief’ session had had on themselves, and a fragment from a song we sing at the 9:30am worship service stuck in my mind….’You were in this place’
As it was the week in which the church was holding Reconciliation Sunday, I thought that what we had just experienced had many of the elements that apply to reconciliation. It is about risking, getting to know people whose lived experiences may be very different to ours, and trying for just a moment to walk in their shoes. And how it is helped when we work from a faith or value base that allows us to truly ‘see’ the way to a just and compassionate society.
*The names are changed to protect the privacy of these individuals