They stare straight ahead, and stride past other pedestrians without seeing them: ignoring the gawking strolling tourists with their cameras and bum-bags. Ignoring too the fresh faced young backpackers with so much of their future lives still to be lived, who are casually ambling along in twos and threes, discussing their itineraries, or on the way to the internet café, talking in languages of the European Union.
These blokes are solitary for the most part, though some have a mate or two. Some favour sports gear – track pants, trainers and hoodies but they aren’t jogging anywhere. Some have back packs, others trolleys piled high with their belongings – some of the trolleys courtesy of Safeway, others have nothing, some are always in coats and beanies irrespective of the temperature, all walking along, few have iPods, or other such gadgets. A few are filthy, some are dishevelled with ill fitting or mismatched outfits: clothes are often unwashed and food stained, smelling of having being slept in. But others’ appearances are unremarkable.
On they go, up Grey St, past the pharmacy on the corner, past the internet café with photos of vans for sale and offers of interstate rides for a contribution to the cost of petrol: up the hill, past Jackson St, past the Crisis Centre, past the splendour of the renovated Alliance Francais, without as much as a glance in at its impressive façade, past tired looking sex workers who wait: some with glazed looks, as if already wasted with too many prescription drugs or illicit substances. Cruising divvy vans are ignored.
These blokes avoid eye contact. For the most part they’re not interested in casual conversation. Most will spurn the approach of social workers or counsellors. Not for them offers of help or kind words. They’re not expecting to obtain housing or to get off their drug of choice – any time soon. Some are only here because they’ve run short again this fortnight. Most no longer trust anyone.
They’ve emerged from their squats, rooming houses, friends’ living room couches or wherever they’ve spent the night; rail or freeway underpasses, the scrub along the foreshore, verandahs of tolerant churches, porticos in parks and countless other places. Sleeping bags and blankets stashed in a secure place for the day.
This is their daily trek, their daily preoccupation. A decent feed will see them through until tomorrow. They’re not concerned about global economic down turns, theirs arrived a long time ago. Weekend trips to Bunnings to purchase something for that backyard project? Changes in home interest rates? Crowded trains? No, no and no.
So how has it come to this? It’s more than a hiatus, this stagnant underclass existence, this erosion of independence, this reliance on lunch at the Mission, that’s accessible after you’ve lined up in an orderly fashion and filed in past the security bloke. Unlike gaining entrance to a nightclub, what you wear here is not important. It’s more about socially acceptable behaviour. Physical violence or intimidating behaviour won’t be tolerated.
There are stories of misfortune. It’s a long list: relationship breakdowns, losing battles with the demon drink, gambling, problems with authority figures, chronic physical ailments, denial about mental illness, trauma, heart-wrenching tales of childhood abuse that no one should ever have to experience. Others just haven’t been able to cope with their life’s downward trajectory, though of course it is never as simple as that.
It’s hard to imagine that things aren’t going to get any better soon. But for now, it’s a free feed, a square meal: meat and three veggies, and a vegetarian option and dessert: and it’s all available again tomorrow and the day after.
Long after the backpackers have loaded up their backpacks, updated their contacts on their iPhones, sent off their emails and are well on their way, these folk still remain, to go on staring straight ahead, striding along, up the hill without a backward glance.
Looking back’s no use, it’s already too late, too painful and it doesn’t matter, so much is already long gone.