Couch surfing

•  Homeless people and support workers at the Couch Conversations event outside Fremantle town hall. Photos by Justin Stahl

IT’S just before lunch and a large, noisy group of homeless people are gathering in the High Street mall, desperately trying to get the attention of passers-by.

They’ve dragged some old couches in front of an empty shop and “just want to talk to you for a minute”.

But it’s not your money or your cigarettes they want.

As you step towards a tall skinny man, you see the writing on his shirt: “Homeless…want to know my story?”.

This is no mob, but a Couch Conversations event run by St Pat’s Community Support Centre for Homelessness Week, where the homeless chat about life on the streets with interested passers-by.

The smiling, boisterous crowd want to tell the world that they’re still human and that this could happen to anyone – even you.

The first person I shake hands with is Malcolm, who was about to grab one of the free sandwiches when he saw me staring at his shirt.

After immigrating to WA from England as a young boy, he moved to the eastern states where he began a promising professional soccer career, but by his mid-20s he had suffered three knee injuries and was prescribed an opiate-based pain medication.

When the highly-addictive prescription ran out, Malcolm felt compelled to find an alternative, losing years of his life in the process. He “made it out the other side” and has been ‘clean’ for years, attaining several sports education certificates.

But his missing teeth have cost him many a job interview.

That was driven home recently when a temporary set of false teeth found him “suddenly being treated completely differently, I didn’t think people were so shallow.”

Like many participating in Couch Conversations, he would be happy with any job, but has struggled to shake off the homeless stigma and find work.

Another participant, nicknamed ‘Clock’, said the most important thing he could tell people was how important it was to “just have someone acknowledge us – you don’t have to ignore us.”

As he related grim details of living on the street, including having his seventh bike stolen in two years, he looked over with a cheeky grin at a bike directly behind his couch, laughing that “it’s ok, I got this one back!”.

He said sadly it was often “the homeless that steal from the homeless”, before noting “it’s that one out of 10 that give us all a bad name – but where are they today? While they’re off drinking we’re here trying to tell our stories to anyone that will listen.”

When asked about the biggest issue facing them, a chorus of three people rang out: “the Community Safety Team!”.

Danny, a long-term homeless man, described the council’s participation in the event as a “façade of bullshit”. “When we’re in the eyes of the media, they roll out the red carpet – then they’ll go back to moving us on from where we try to sleep.”

‘Clock’ agreed: “Freo doesn’t want us here … every single public toilet now closes at 7pm, even the one with the industrial grade steel sinks at the Esplanade that used to stay open.

“Where do they expect people to go for 12 hours until they reopen at 7am? It’s not like we can afford to use the ones in a restaurant.”

The two friends put an arm around each other’s shoulders, saying “it’s like a brotherhood out here. We’re the ones that really have eyes on the street.”

“It could be worse,” Danny said, pointing to the volunteers, “we’re lucky that we have some selfless people like that who look after us no matter what.”

by JUSTIN STAHL

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