His name was Les, and I used to see him quite regularly walking the streets of the Melbourne CBD. He wore a tatty old Drizabone coat, all oil and grease-stained from who knows where he had slept in it. He would shuffle around the CBD, eyes down – I guess to avoid the pain of knowing that the city was avoiding him. He was obviously homeless. In the classic understanding of being homeless, that is. He lived on the streets, begged for money and food, had knotted hair and beard, and seemingly no possessions as such. I was next going to describe him as downtrodden, but I think trodden down suited his situation better. He owned a spirit that rose above his circumstances.
“Oh, hi!!. How are you!!” His face would light up when he heard his name, and his smile would shine through the fog of petty grievances that were obscuring my world that day. I remember him having these beautiful clear blue-green eyes. They were almost innocent, child-like – as if he refused to see the hardness of his own circumstances they belied. He never remembered my name, but I didn’t care. A tenner in the CBD used to buy a burger that your body would forget within an hour – or a smile from Les that your soul remembered for a lifetime. I was not the only one to be taken by his spirit. A graffiti artist did a portrait of him in one of the alleys off the Bourke street mall. Les was really proud of it. It was an honour to share in his joy.
The passing of time replaces doubt with romance. I choose to remember the joy of our later meetings over the probable suspicion and mistrust of our first few. I cannot specifically remember the first time I met Les, but no doubt I would have been averting my gaze. Just like the rest. That was an excerpt of my story with Les. It painted a silver lining in my mind around the otherwise dark cloud of homelessness.
Over the coming months we are offering shelter overnight in Wangaratta for those who need it. I’ve often described it as a homeless shelter, but our project co-ordinator takes pains to avoid using the word “homeless”. She stresses that homelessness can take many forms, including being trapped inside an abusive household. Thus the typical question about how many homeless people live in Wang becomes unanswerable. Some people will seek shelter with us because their home is not a house, others will come to us because their house is not a home. It is not our place to question what kind of storm they are seeking shelter from. But it is our place to respect their stories and to help where we can.
Our first guests have begun filtering in, and already I have found myself comparing these new experiences to the happy experiences I built up over a long time with Les. I have to check myself. These people are not Les. They are each unique individuals in their own right. If the guests choose to share their stories with me, that is a privilege for me, not a right earned through smiling enough or making dinner for them. I only need to remember how I felt when I was in the midst of my turmoil a few years back. I just really needed a place where I could retreat from the turmoil, feel safe and find myself again. This church has given me that place of peace and healing. It is now my duty to honour that gift by passing the care and support on.
Our task as volunteers is to offer safe shelter and a caring, listening ear for those who are at a difficult point in their own journey. If we can do all that in a friendly, homely environment, then we will have done well. Contentment from my involvement in the Night Shelter project will come from honouring the work itself. But I will also be driven in part by the inspiration and hope I drew from my simple friendship with Les all those years ago.
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” – Colossians 3:23-24
PRAYER: Dear Lord, I pray for dear Les. I pray for his health, that he might be still enjoying his life, and that he continues to inspire others with his positivity and determination. I also pray for the Wang Night Shelter, that it may fulfil its need in the community, and that the volunteers be blessed for their dedication to the programme. I ask for this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
SONG: My Lighthouse by Rend Collective – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reAlJKv7ptU
Like to help with the Wang Night Shelter, please contact Di Duursma on 0419 530 455