Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bernie the Polite Girl for Blank Gold Coast magazine

The invisibility issue: Homelessness |MAKING A DIFFERENCE – a volunteer’s perspective

Making_A_Difference WEB

Homelessness really gets me talking. My involvement started over three years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Grant Richards, one of the Big Issue vendors in Brisbane city at the time. I bought a magazine from him, and we talked. Many times. Having been homeless himself, he talked about homelessness, helping the homeless and the BBQs he organised for homeless people and others in need. I decided to help. Many affectionately called him Grant the Polite Guy and, after helping others together for some time and developing a close friendship, he nicknamed me Bernie the Polite Girl, and us together as The Polite Team. A big honour!

I never thought about the homeless before because I didn’t know any people in that situation. Grant changed this for me. He talked about the lived experience of being homeless, of walking through the city looking different, in clothes that aren’t clean, aren’t the right size or don’t fit the season, and with all of one’s possessions in a bag. He talked about not having a door to close and be safe behind at the end of the day, about “being moved on” when trying to sleep in an alley or on a park bench, about people uttering nasty slurs while walking past. Homelessness was about survival, isolation, humiliation and cold. I was inspired to help him help the homeless, and from then on life had added depth; when you help people, you get to know them. Out of the undefined shapes that dissolved in the masses who lived, worked and breathed in the city, faces emerged. Hearts. Stories. Human beings.

The first BBQ I helped Grant organise was a real eye opener. Initially a bit nervous about the unfamiliar, I felt very comfortable very quickly. I was deeply touched by the big, genuine need out there, and especially by the thoughtfulness people showed. Many said to me “I don’t want to take too much, because others may need it more”. These people had nothing, and in all their poverty, with this abundance of food and clothes in front of them, they still thought about others first. Everyone shared a meal and a chat; those needing basic necessities left with things they badly needed but couldn’t afford to buy. They had smiles on their faces, walked a little straighter, were the proud new owners of toiletries, clothes, blankets. The volunteers were smiling too.

One encounter stood out for me. One man was probably in his forties, keeping to himself. I said hello, and he started to tell me about his life. He had been homeless since he was nine, he’d had some “bad” friends along the way and learned to drink. He managed to clean up his life and quit alcohol. Two major feats, accomplished while on the street, with no one to notice or to encourage him; cleaning up his life meant that he had no friends, and he had no family contact. He cried through most of our conversation, because for the first time someone listened to his story. He didn’t know my name, I didn’t know his, and it didn’t matter. We connected as human beings. Later that afternoon he said he felt better, and he had made his first decision in a long time: he’d go to Melbourne. He left with a spring in his step. I watched him go, and hoped he’d do well. For me, this encounter proved that what Grant and I did was awesome, and that we should keep doing it.

The homeless and others in need all have their own histories of why they became homeless or needy. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, “homeless” or “in need” is never the answer. Sometimes something goes wrong along the way, and life takes a painful turn.
We all want the same: acceptance, belonging, respect, validation, shelter. Homeless people get so little of it. Passers-by often avoid them, look through them rather than see them. The homeless are often targets of violence because they are unlikely to press charges. They are often asked to leave but everyone needs some space somewhere.

For the homeless to feel they are part of humanity and worthy of respect is a major thing, and it is so simple to achieve. It is incredibly rewarding to have a chat to someone one day, and then hear them say a few weeks later, “I thought about our conversation, and I started a TAFE course”. It is also great to see people come for help at one BBQ, get on their feet, and a couple of BBQs later come back to help others.

We can all make that difference. We can all make people feel accepted, respected, validated. Smile, say g’day, listen, and see the change! When you show people you respect and accept them, they will respect and accept themselves, and that is often just what they need to turn their lives around. If that isn’t awesome, nothing is!

Bernie the Polite Girl 

Grant the Polite Guy for Blank Gold Coast magazine


Hello everyone,

I am so proud that the Polite Team had been invited by Natalie O'Driscoll, cultural editor from Blank Gold Coast magazine to contribute to their June issue. She asked Grant and me to do a Q&A and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) around the topic of homelessness. I am posting Grant's Q&A below, and my Op-Ed will be the next post. I would like to thank Natalie and Blank Gold Coast Magazine for giving us the opportunity to get our message out there. We hope our articles will be a bit of an eye opener for at least some.

If you like to read our contributions in the context of the magazine, please follow this link and find us on pages 43 and 44.

So proud of what we as the Polite Team are doing, so proud of our published articles. I hope you like reading them.

written by Bernie the Polite Girl for the Polite Team          



The Invisibility Issue: Homelessness | Grant Richards’ story

Grant Richards is a cheerful, blue-eyed man with a warm smile and a friendly demeanour. You would never know from talking to him that he had been to hell and back over the years. Drawing knowledge and strength from his own personal experiences, he now spends as much time as possible trying to help people in a similar situation. Natalie O’Driscoll spoke with him to find out more.

Tell me your personal story and experience with homelessness?
My story starts with me being very successful in life as a Head Cook at many restaurants, married with a beautiful daughter. I even had the dog and picket fence, at the time I believed I had a perfect life. Haha. Then one horrific day I had an accident with a stairwell leaving me in and out of three hospitals over nine months. The impact was enough to break all my teeth and to leave me with spinal and other injuries. I left the hospital with an external back brace and a walking frame. My body was broken. Being in constant pain I couldn’t work, while in hospital I lost the house and soon after the family. I became homeless.

The first piece of food I got was from another homeless person who didn’t have much at all, but offered to share. I was selling the Big Issue when a customer gave me a bag of clothes and asked if I would give them to a homeless person. I agreed, and the next day a homeless girl was wearing the clothes. I thought this was a great idea, so I asked people to give me clothes and food to give out at a BBQ for the homeless. 400 homeless people turned up getting food and clothes and this was the start of my Homeless BBQs.

When did the BBQs start?
July 2011 while I was still homeless myself, 400 homeless people came and got free food, clothes, toiletries and blankets. Now they run every eight weeks, at Musgrave Park South Brisbane, Ipswich, Wynnum, Caboolture and I’m hoping to start in Logan and Gold Coast this year.

How do you recruit volunteers, and get the word out to the homeless community?

We have a Facebook page Signal Flare – Helping the Homeless and Others in Need where people can follow what we’re up to, and we recruit volunteers through our events pages – we create one for every BBQ. Every Homeless BBQ we make thousands of fliers made up and spend hours walking around handing them out to the homeless and people in need. But word of mouth also gets more people there. On average we get between 400 to 1000 homeless or people in need, but even when it’s raining 400 people that need it most will still come out just to get free food, clothes, toiletries and blankets.

Homelessness, addiction and mental health issues tend to be interconnected.  What do you see as the greatest contributing factor to homelessness and why?
This is sad but the truth is there’s not enough services or resources to help even half of the people suffering from mental health and addictions. Limited help means people fall through the cracks and then in a lot of cases turn out worst as a result. A lot of people are left with homelessness because there’s nowhere left to turn. It’s a short road there but a long road back. One thing to remember is that homeless, addicts and people suffering from mental health all have one thing in common they are people who hit hard times and found it too hard to bounce back. It would be great if bouncing back could be made more within people’s reach.

What do you find are the greatest misconceptions around homelessness?
I feel the biggest misconception is that all homeless are crazy drug addicted bums that have never worked a day in their life or, as many say to me, that they can get help if they wanted it. So many homeless could never afford drugs and have been to so many services and put on endless waiting lists that they give up even more on getting back on their feet. It makes them give up on themselves even more. It really does lower your self-confidence, self-worth and the courage to ask for help if each time you ask nothing happens.

What would you change about current government policy if you could?
We work with the homeless directly, on a ground level. If they need help we give it to them. Government policy is not my forte, but every day I see people getting really depressed and discouraged when they can no longer afford to stay in crisis accommodation because it’s too expensive for them. They have no choice but go back on the street. There have been huge cutbacks in services, the number of homeless grows and so does the need. They need more services not less. There is a need for more affordable crisis accommodation, and some guidance or case management and the opportunity to go from crisis accommodation into affordable housing and into education or work. Surely there can be policies made around that? Once the homeless see that people think they’re worth it they will start to believe it too, and they will do well. Reducing homelessness will also reduce mental health issues and addiction.
What has the reaction from the homeless community been to the BBQs?
It’s always amazing to see the homeless and people in need come to our homeless BBQ because the first thing you notice is the absence of real greed – we have a truck load of clothes that they can get for free and yet they will only take what they need. You see, homeless don’t want to carry more than they have to. We have our volunteer workers eating the same food as the homeless, sitting on the same bench talking, the homeless feel more part of the community and yes, for many it rubs off, and they start to get back on their feet.

Do you have a story you can share of someone you have helped get back on their feet?
To be honest it’s really hard to pick one story out of thousands, but there was this guy who came to our homeless BBQ to get food and clothes, while eating I was talking to him about maybe getting on his feet, he said the biggest problem he had was getting a job with a huge gap in work history. I mentioned that there were employers at that event that may consider him if he really wanted to. To my surprise he asked if he could get some job interview clothes to wear and we went and talked to a few people. 45 minutes later he had a job starting the next day working for Dalton’s Hospitality. That afternoon we got him all the work gear he needed, money on his Go-card for travel, accommodation, and I have to say I couldn’t get him to stop hugging me and crying while saying thank you.

He turned up for work 30 minutes early and was keen to start his new job. A few days later I got a call from Dalton’s Hospitality, saying he was working out great and never stopped. He re-united with his wife and kids, and they now live together again. He had given up on himself and it only took someone to believe in him for him to believe in himself.

If people want to get involved in assisting with these events, how do they go about it?
We are always saying that these homeless BBQ’s are the community coming together to give a helping hand. So please if people would like to help out they can go to our Facebook page, contact me personally -Grant the Polite Guy 0412 190 011, or email Bernie the Polite Girl.

What are your plans for the future of the BBQs and the Polite Team? 
We’ll continue to do our homeless BBQs every eight weeks and helping on a daily basis. But this is just the beginning as we are looking to helping people in Sydney and even starting Homeless BBQs there as well, because as we get more volunteers and support the more we accomplish, really there’s no limit.