Suburban Poverty in the Twenty-First Century: Housing and Hunger

Asher Wolf
May 11, 2017 · 16 min read

It’s all too easy to miss the poverty between the multimillion dollar property developments in the inner-south east of Melbourne, especially if you look away from people begging on the streets of local shopping strips.

I visited the Father Bob Foundation over a couple of nights to learn more about the part the small, yet crucial not-for-profit plays in helping to feed dozens of people every night.

Entering the kitchen of the Father Bob Foundation at 6pm on a Wednesday night, you get the feeling of entering a busy family home preparing for dinner. There’s a bustling, warm energy — a friendly clamour of chatter as veggies are peeled and prepared for the oven.

The Father Bob Foundation is a strange fit in a suburb of multimillion property developments — it’s existence is a reminder of lurking burden of unmet needs.

While the faces of hunger and need are easy to spot on the streets of the central business district, poverty in suburban areas like South Melbourne often takes a different form from straight-up homelessness: increasingly it takes the shape of what is known as “housed hunger”: people living in supported accommodation or public housing commissions often face ongoing struggles to make ends meet.

People are forced to make tough decisions: pay the rent, or groceries. One small unexpected bill or an emergency may result in homeless or inability to make ends meet.

The Father Bob Foundation is a frontline charity that attempts to take the edge off the cyclical desperation that poverty entrenches in low-income earner’s lives.

The small group of regular volunteers at the Father Bob Foundation are the heart and soul of the operation. It runs on a shoe-string budget, but provides far more than food: there’s a counselling service, psychologists, legal support, help with navigating the dragon labyrinth of Centrelink processes, and quietly-awarded scholarships for a handful of kids growing up in the local housing commission.

The Father Bob Foundation is a service that bases itself on no-nonsense dedication to relieving human suffering, a down-to-earth operation that centres itself on the needs of the community.

Aiden, a youth worker at the Father Bob Foundation, shows me around the warehouse and kitchen, chatting as he lugs containers of hot food to the waiting vans:

I work here three days a week. How I got here? You want the story? The Royal Commission was happening with the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, and my work was dying a slow death, and eventually the union was deregistered and I was sometimes working and not working…and then there was a time I wasn’t working at all.

I was at a mate’s birthday party in the 90’s, and his brother was the priest out at Turana, the men’s prison. And he said “why don’t you come in to Turana and chat to the young blokes from the country who don’t get any visitors?” So I used to go in and talk to them, be their visitor. And so eventually I ended up getting a job in youth work. Someone gave me a go and then I went back to study. I started setting up programs. In 2002 I went to work for Father Bob at ‘Open Family.’ It was a really solid team.

Father Bob is in his 80’s now and I don’t see him retiring anytime soon. God is his retirement plan, I figure.

All people need is a healthcare card…they can come in and get a bag of food. I don’t think we’d ever turn anyone away, no matter what. If a person comes here, then they need to be here. We don’t do a package up and say “here you are!”

We have a couple who sleep in the park [behind the warehouse] and they just come up and get what they need when they need it.

Our food is all rescued food. It comes from Foodbank, Secondbite, Fairshare and the local Coles in Port Melbourne — Coles gives to Secondbite. Aussie Harvest is another one that helps us out.

Sometimes you get donations like, errrrrrm ‘Ginger Coke.’ We take it. Don’t judge it.

You don’t want to be giving people food they don’t like or won’t eat. So we let people come and choose the food they want to take with them. Pantry staples and fruit and veggies. We say “come back in a week or two”, but if someone needed to come everyday… we wouldn’t say no.

You shouldn’t deny people what they want. Sure, we offer veggies. And we got plenty of juices and bottled water too. But we’re not here to judge people, tell ’em what they should and shouldn’t eat. Who are we to judge?

You wouldn’t do that to your friends. We don’t do that to our people here either. You can’t say “you can ONLY have brown rice, not white wheat spaghetti,” or “you can ONLY have the oatmeal, not the chocolate rice bubbles.” That wouldn’t be ok. That’d be mean.

Yeah, that box over there is free tampons and pads. We make sure people get what they need, as well as what they want.

The Mums and Dads — the donors who give us $5 and $10 every single month — they’re our bread and butter as far as money goes. They complete our story, keep this place afloat. Couldn’t do it without them.

Father Bob? Well, he’s as radical as you get. I’ve seen him hand the last $20 out of his wallet to someone on his doorstep. There’s no one else like him. People can’t handle that. He does that: the things he believes in. Not just the words. Actually does it. That’s why we’re here. To do what’s needed.

I come from a generation where things were a struggle. I’ve been working in this scene for 30 years. Some things have changed, but other things have stayed the same. I think it’s tougher for young people now. It has its moments. You’re seeing whole families struggling, where you wouldn’t have in the past. Sometimes one family member will come in and collect a food parcel for the whole family, then we won’t see them again for a couple weeks. But there’s no shame here.

All of this place relies on word of mouth. We don’t have to advertise the meals and the food parcels. People just keep coming.

You see a lot of the same faces every week, but also people who come in once or twice who you never see again.

Some of these people who you meet here are the best people you’d ever meet. But they’re being judged. And that’s not fair.

On the first night I visit, the dinner is held under the archway of an entrance to a housing commission. People are already gathering in a huddle when the food vans pull up.

I help to unpack portable tables and chairs, then join the crowd of people waiting for dinner to be served up.

Hakim speaks in stilted English, but with bright, intense eyes filled with intelligence and passion. A Father Bob Foundation worker introduces him to me while he waits in a food line for a hot dinner.

I’m 55. I’m homeless at the moment, but I used to have a place. It was nearby. I’m from Algeria, born overseas. I speak five languages. Yes, that’s right — five languages! I’m not working right now. I sleep on the beach, but it’d good to be inside. No one wants to sleep outside, not really.

I have a bill to pay… a debt. After divorce, many years later… for my children. I made a mistake, they said I didn’t pay something. Who knows. The government sent me a bill. A bill for over eight thousand dollars.

They’re de-ter-mined not to waive the debt. They say they can waive the penalty, but not the debt. I haven’t seen my kids in seven, maybe eight years. I was studying a Masters of Mathematics at Victoria University.

But I couldn’t understand the bill the government sent me — the data they gave me doesn’t make sense. And the amounts keep changing.

In other countries, if they find a bill after many, many years, they cancel it. This isn’t right, sending me this bill now. It’s been years. They are telling me what they think I was doing four years ago, six years ago. They make any decision they want. I’ve been homeless three years. It makes me upset.

In the winter, I will go into the city. It’s warm in the city during winter and there are more places to hide undercover. But in summer I stay away from where people gather, it’s safer. Stay alone — it’s better.

Close to where I used to live, there was this dinner. So I knew to come here when I need.

Cheaper housing….hhhhhhmmmmm. Well, right now it’s very expensive to rent. Too expensive. $200 — it’s too much. At the moment it’s too much.

I was from Algeria. I was taught by French teachers in primary school and high school. I was born during the Algerian War of Independence. I came to Australia as a refugee during the civil war. I was working as a teacher in Asia, teaching Arabic. I left my country before the civil war, but in 1991 I wanted to go back, but war started. The government mistreated the citizens. They didn’t renew people’s passports. I was stuck. So I came here by plane. I was in Thailand. I had visa for two years and they wanted too much money for the next visa. I couldn’t.

Centrelink is like a bully in my life now. It’s arrogant….errrrm, like a tyrant! Some people criticise Centrelink for the amount of money. But no. That’s not why I criticise Centrelink. They sent me a letter with no evidence. It’s not right. They send me letters, and make assumptions. They stop payments the same day, without seeking explanations. They said I didn’t attend the appointment, but I did! Maybe they put it in wrong. But I was there.

— — —

Almost immediately after I finish interviewing Hakim, someone recognises me. A young woman, wearing a cartoon-emblazoned t-shirt and a bag decorated with colourful patterns. I’m suddenly shaken off balance a little by the intrusion of my social media-life into my work. But Beth wants to chat:

Oooooooh! I KNOW YOU. I know you from Twitter. I follow you on Twitter. Hahah. Yeah alright, I’ll talk to you.

I have a sleep disorder called narcolepsy, and also cataplexy as well. A while ago I was in the city, and a police car went past with a siren on. I fell down and hit the ground: that’s my cataplexy.

I’m in stable accomodation. But finding a job is tough. At the moment I’m on an really expensive medication. It’s not on the PBS. It costs a lot every month.

I’ve been involved with the Father Bob Foundation for a very long time now. I had a great worker, but he had a heart attack and died. I needed to come back out into public slowly. I just wanted to get back into the community.

And because of my financial situation, I need this. This foundation. The food’s alright. But on the hot days I find out can’t come outside much because of my condition. The heatwaves make it hard. But now it’s cooling down at night time I can be out here more and spend the evening here for dinner.

There are other services, but I hear stuff from others that make me think it’s not for me… here they know me. It’s smaller. They know what I’m like.

— — — —

One of the workers introduces me to Keith, a well-spoken middle-aged man. I explain to Keith that I’m interviewing people about suburban poverty. He grins at me wryly, and fires off half a dozen questions at me about the state of journalism in Australia, before I manage to get him back on track to talk about himself:

I’m sort of in a grey area, because I don’t receive any benefits or anything like that.

I suffered from depression for a long time: I had a breakdown, and was in the Austin hospital for ten days, and after I came out I said: “I’m never going to work for anyone ever again.” I just knew I couldn’t. So I try to work for myself. I have a little market stall occasionally, selling books. I’m a writer, a poet. You don’t do it for the money. I’ve been working on a film script.

Going on Centrelink…it’s work. But I might need to go on it soon. I need to get some dental work done. My teeth are in pretty bad shape.

I think a lot of people are really scared to change. I work in an op-shop as well, one day a week and I say to my friend who works there, “you should be running this place.” But she won’t. I think people get stuck and can’t change. I’m just lucky I found writing and poetry.

I’m really into movies. I have a friend who gets lots of free tickets, so I’ve seen about six movies lately. I’m going to see La La Land. I enjoy a bit of jazz.

I find a lot of the people from my family’s cultural background, because I don’t have children or a wife… they treat me with a bit of suspicion. One of my brother’s is a very successful business man, and he says “oh, that’s my brother, the one without money.” And I say “yes, I gave it all away!”

I got some meat from this meal to take home with me. Some weeks I only spend $20 on groceries. I only make a couple hundred dollars a week. It’s not really enough to live off. I rent a room from a friend.

— — — —

Casting around for the next interview, I notice a woman in her late 40’s with a leg injury. She’s eating dinner with a younger female friend. I quickly learn her name is Cheryl. She seems surprised when I ask her about her life, and hesitant to talk at first — but then it all pours out.

Who me? There’s not much to tell. I haven’t been on the streets. But my brother’s been putting me under stress. Don’t ask.

And I’ve got problems, physically, emotionally… and money problems too. I’ve got problems with the dole. I live across the other side of the city, in Essendon. But I met some people in the city and they told me about the dinner, brought me over here.

I’ve been really struggling financially. I’ve been here for a meal a few times. I didn’t want to make it a habit, but I was just…struggling. I need to be around other people.

When my depression gets me down, I come here for the company. I feel better when I’m with other people. It’s more than just the food, why I come here. It’s people. I need people.

I worry about eating carbs. The doctors made me feel bad about my weight, told me I should lose it. I can’t help it — it was the medication. That’s why I went off it: the medication. But I’ve still got the weight.

Yeah, but look, there’s salad with this dinner! I don’t want to go back on medication. It makes me fat and then the doctors make me feel bad about it and so I stopped, and anyway, then I’m still alone.

My boyfriend told me off for coming here, told me I could go home and cook, but money’s a problem. My boyfriend, he told me I should fend for myself, makes me feel bad about coming here. He could help me, but he doesn’t. I’ve got a bung leg and no money and no one here for me. Except these dinners.

My boyfriend lives up in Bendigo. It’s a long distance thing. He said “give me your bank account number,” said he’d put money in my account. I dunno. I’m too paranoid to give him my bank details. You got to look after yourself.

I haven’t been working for a long time, I’ve had depression since both of my parents passed away. I haven’t got kids, it’s just me by myself. Even though it’s been a long time since both my parents passed away, you never stop missing them. I never got over losing them. The rest of my family shun me. I can’t help who I am. How I look. I just feel…alone. All the time. But not here. Here I have some friends, people I can talk to about stuff.

A lot of people here have homes, but they can’t support themselves. Can’t survive on the pension alone. Housing is too hard to come by. They don’t want to pay the rent, so they end up on the streets. Or they don’t want to pay for the food, so they come here. It’s like… pick one. You can pick one thing. But you can’t afford everything.

Katie is one of the youngest woman I came across at the dinner services. Neatly dressed in casual clothes, she doesn’t look any different from anyone you’d pass on the street. We chat, while volunteers distribute bread and fresh veggies and fruit and cups of tea and coffee.

Ever since I had my son, I’ve had a bit of depression. I’ve done voluntary work and stuff like that. I go up and down. When I was in my 30’s I went through a break-up with my son’s father. I got really depressed. I was put on anti-depressants, mood stabilisers. It wiped me out. I couldn’t get out of bed for six months, just staying home, wandering around the house. My sister started going to a social service charity and I started coming with her, and by hearing other people’s stories I knew there were other people that went through worse. There were lots of activities and sessions about health, Centrelink workers.

Sometimes I find there’s a lot of people there who are older than me. I have my family, I have lots of brothers and sisters. I live with my dad, my sister and my son. Three generations under our roof

But sometimes I feel like at home I want to pull my hair out. They want the best for me, it’s not that they judge, my family. They want me to get a job. But everyday I’m struggling with anxiety. They say “you gotta do this, you gotta do that.” Coming out to these places, being away from them at times helps.

My dad’s on the pension, my sister’s on a low paid job, and there’s my son — he’s not earning yet. And I haven’t been paid Centrelink since June last year. They took it off me because my son was doing an apprenticeship for a few months and then I couldn’t deal with my anxiety dealing with them and so now I’m going to this place that’s gonna help me get back on it.

Centrelink doesn’t understand. They give me paperwork and I’m just — I dunno, I’m overwhelmed. I’d don’t know what to do. They say “you gotta do this, do that”, and I just can’t.

People don’t believe me when I say that it took a case worker to help me get back on Centrelink last time. She took me to the doctor, and to the psychologist and to get all the papers I needed. When we finally sat down at Centrelink the staffer there was like “what the hell, how have you been surviving for the last five years?”

It’s only because I’m living under my dad’s roof, with my sister and son. It’s been hard. Dad’s angry because I have no money at times, and I get kicked out.

For a while I stayed at the Gatwick, and then I was also seeing this guy who was on the streets and so we camped out in a park in a tent. He can’t get Centrelink because he’s a New Zealand citizen. Sometimes he does work on the docks, with the shipping containers.

You gotta get yourself out of the situation. Sometimes when I stay out with him on the streets I feel better than at home. We put up a two-man tent in the park, somewhere in North Melbourne. It’s kind of peaceful.

People say, “how can you say on the street,” but hey, it’s not so bad, it’s very calm, out in the park. We have our water bottle, we take some food with us. We watch the possums, kick back and watch the people walk by. It’s really silent. At our house it’s never silent. It’s noisy and full of people. I can’t cope with it, with anxiety and depression you just want to be on your own. I lay in my room a lot, and they yell “YOU STILL SLEEPING!”, but I’m not sleeping, I just want to be left alone. I tried to do up the little bungalow at the back of the house so I could have some space of my own, but it has mould, and makes my asthma worse.

It’s a nice place, this group of people. They look out for us.

They gave us chocolate tonight for Easter, they give us bread… but that’s not the only reason we come here.

There’s lots of places to go eat, lots of people handing out food, but the question is, where’s the housing? Where’s the roofs over people’s heads? You can give them shoes, clothes… but where’s the housing? Everything is a jumble. A mess. This is Australia. You don’t expect it, all the struggle.

— — — —

After the meal, the people drift away and the volunteers reload the crates back into the vans.

Back at the warehouse, dishes are scrubbed, clean tea towels folded, floors mopped, and crates of food are stacked ready for the next night.

[Please note: all names have been changed to preserve the privacy of people interviewed for this article.]

Asher Wolf

Written by

Cryptoparty founder. Amnesty Australia 'Humanitarian Media Award' recipient 2014.

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