Our Big Issue

Our Big Issue

Last Sunday I travelled into the city to accompany my son who was competing in the ‘Run Melbourne’ fundraiser. He was running in support of Servants Community Housing, an organisation offering affordable, safe housing for vulnerable people.

I left him and a mate amongst the heaving throng of runners and headed to the Arts Centre to enjoy a coffee in the winter sunshine. St Kilda Road was bustling with those who’d already completed their race and I felt happily anonymous amongst the young families and tourists.

A tall man conspicuous by his stillness stood aside from the crowd. His dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a hessian bag slung over his lean frame. He was holding up a copy of The Big Issue. At $6 this magazine not only provides a good read but offers homeless people the opportunity to earn their own money.

As I approached the vendor his face flickered with a mix of reticence and relief. We commented on the large crowd and I asked how business was going. “A bit slow, it’s mostly joggers and they don’t carry much money.” He laughed and his eyes crinkled at the corners. Big Issue Guy thanked me and as I headed to the coffee cart I thought, he just made $3 from the sale of my magazine, that wouldn’t even buy a coffee. I went back to ask if could I get him a coffee too. “That’d be great; a cappuccino with two sugars” he replied, adding almost apologetically “it’s really just a flat white with chocolate sprinkles.” Again that crinkly smile. When I brought back the coffee he joked “I’ve got to move on from here, this bamboo flute music is making my ears bleed.” He gently shook my hand and said with sincerity “God bless you.”

I followed the Yarra River which was full of movement. I was crossing the pedestrian bridge when a lone figure caught my attention; I turned around instinctively and asked “Are you ok?” Slumped against the railing was a man, cap pulled low over his eyes. “No, I’m not ok.” I walked over and crouched beside him. He was wearing bulky clothes and appeared to be carrying more in a backpack. “I’m sick of being moved on, a busker just told me to move, it happens all the time.” He spoke in a rush. “I can’t stay anywhere, I’m always being told to leave, I’m so over it.” Tears began to fall from his blue eyes, he was very young. I rubbed his back – “I know, you’re absolutely exhausted.” “There’s nowhere to stay… I’m not a bad person.” The words were tumbling out. “I can see you’re a good person and you’re having a really rough time.” Tears were falling like plump raindrops. “I feel like such a loser, I just want to give up.” I felt his despair and said “I’m so sorry.” He shook his head “It’s not your fault.” A waiter was watching from between tables of a fancy Southbank restaurant. “What are you looking at?” I said in a low voice, my eyes challenging his to look away.” The exhausted young man said “Everybody looks.”

I knew I couldn’t fix the problem; I just sat and rubbed his back. But I needed to do something so I handed him ten dollars and said “Maybe you could get something to eat.” He gave me a grateful smile. “Don’t give up” I said as I stood to leave. I crossed the bridge and turned to see him still there, his head buried deep into the backpack.

I felt incredibly sad. What had happened to this beautiful boy? He and Big Issue Guy were polite and well spoken, just ordinary people finding themselves on the wrong side of the line.

Things often come in threes. As I approached Flinders Street Station I saw a man sitting cross-legged in the shade. He was holding a cardboard sign with the words ’please give’ scrawled on it. He was older, more worn than the others; there was no light refracting from his face, his brown eyes were hard, body inert. I asked how he was doing and he answered in a low monotone. Into his hat I placed the last of my gold coins amongst a smattering of silver. As I left I touched his shoulder, which was probably an intrusion, but I was selfish and I did it for myself. He had enough dignity to allow this indulgence to pass.

I walked slowly back along the Yarra, my heart heavy. I approached the busy ‘Servants’ tent. It was white and the sun shone in. I met the returning runners and saw that some good had been done.

“It can be as little as 12 months from a significant life event to losing everything and arriving on the street. Last year alone we worked with over 2500 individuals, enabling people who are homeless to take control of their lives.” The big Issue Foundation


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