Street Stories: Alice

Street Stories: Alice

We met Alice the other night when we were doing outreach. She was sitting on the pavement with her few possessions, outside a busy pub. Alice looked around 55, very slight build, her face lined with crevices and wrinkles that made her seem as though the years had always been hard for her.

I didn’t spot Alice initially. It was the man standing in front of her that made me stop and take notice. The man in the business suit, with the neat tie and well polished shoes. The man who reached into his pocket, pulled out some coins and looked at them.

The man who threw the coins at Alice.

It was then I saw Alice. She had been looking up at the man, smiling. He’d been reaching into his pocket so I guess she naturally assumed he was going to help her. But all he did was humiliate her, hurling the coins then scuttling off like he might catch something if he stayed. To Alice though, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. She looked shocked when the coins were hurled at her but her first instinct was to scramble for the money. All 25c of it. She picked up the three coins, two 10c pieces and a 5c coin, and lined it up with what she already had.

We walked over. The man had gone, no doubt proud he had ‘helped a homeless lady’ that day and was probably heading home to tell his family of his good deed. I wanted to drag him back and make him apoligise to Alice for the way he treated her, for hurling the coins at her and not stopping to say hello, or ask if there was anything else she might need. He’d treated Alice like she was nothing, but correcting his awful behavior wasn’t what I was there for.

We approached Alice and said hello. Her face lit up, I think purely because someone had stopped to chat to her. She looked up with a beaming smile and said ‘Hi’ back. We had some sleeping bags and asked Alice if she’d like one. Her smile grew even bigger as she accepted the offer and popped the new sleeping bag next to the rest of her belongings. Just three bags, and now a sleeping bag.

Alice was putting the 25c with the rest of her money. “Only $9 to go and I can get a place to stay for the night!” she said excitedly. I guess for Alice, 25c is 25c towards safety, no matter how it’s delivered. We asked if she was hungry, or thirsty, she wasn’t. She said she’d just eaten and still had some left over, then showed us the large Macca’s coke someone had given her. She was laughing at the size of it, telling us that it might take her all night to drink it, so she was going to be fine for drinks for a while.

Alice was in good spirits. She laughed as she chatted and told us about the journey that took her to the streets. We asked all the usual questions, did she know about what accommodations services were around, food, laundry, the 1800 number, crisis accommodation centres etc. Alice knew them all. She had exhausted most avenues available to her for housing. Not everyone who enters crisis accommodation exits into a house. We chatted and gave Alice a couple more options. It was then she told us she was 42.

Pity is something I’ll never give a person experiencing homelessness. It’s the last thing they need. They’re people just like everyone else and not to be pitied. But with Alice it was hard not to. Of all the times I’ve been out there, and all the people I’ve met, Alice was the closest I’ve come to experiencing pity. I guess seeing a grown man hurl money at her, and watching her scrambling for it, still grateful regardless of how it was delivered, may have added to that.

Alice looked like she could have been in the last years of her 50’s, but she was only 42. Her frailness probably added to her ageing, but people who have been sleeping rough for a long time are rarely in great health. As Alice said, she had been on and off the streets for many years.

While we were chatting another gentleman stopped by and handed Alice $10. He walked off before she could even thank him. Alice jumped up and started to gather all of her belongings. “I’ve got my $9! I can go to the xxx hostel!”, she said excitedly as she picked up everything she owned. She started looking around, talking about trams and when the next one was due. I asked if she had a Myki. She said she did but didn’t really use it anyway. She remarked again how happy she was that she wouldn’t be on the streets that night. We helped her gather her things and said goodbye.

I knew for Alice the next day would begin a new struggle. Alice would wake up from wherever she was and have to start the same day all over again. Leaving with everything she owned tucked under her arm, sitting on the streets, begging for another night’s accommodation. Accepting everything even if it’s hurled at her.

It’s not a cycle we can stop. We can only help people while they’re out there. We can only try and make each day and night more comfortable for them while they wait to be housed.

There will be many more days out there for Alice, and there will be many more ‘Alice’s’. But for every ‘Alice’ there’s a thousand who want to help. Which ever way you can, if you can, just help.