Twenty-three-year-old Kyle from Canberra is looking for change. He’s been homeless for sometime after losing his job as a clockmaker due to mental health issues. He needs a huge change in his life, but right now on Swanston Street in Melbourne’s city center, small change will do.
“Everyone just assumes that all homeless people are here because of drugs. But actually, I’m not. I am genuinely homeless and I’m trying to get my life back on track,” he tells me as we chat with people walking past us. He’s been sitting here for hours with an upturned hat in front of him, a small backpack with his belongings, and a sign that reads; Homeless! Please help me. I am desperate for a shower, some sleep, even a meal. Please help me if you can to get into a backpackers! Thank you & God bless. Kyle.
He moved to Melbourne three years ago after his mother died of a heroin overdose. She had struggled with addiction for years and sadly he found her body with the needle still in her arm. Later he learned that the heroin she was injecting contained traces of battery acid. “Dealers cut heroin with all kinds of shit,” he tells me. “You risk your life every time you take a hit.”
Kyle sleeps on the streets most nights, a life that is as dangerous as it is hard. He’s been attacked several times as he’s slept in darkened places within the city. Out of the way quiet places can provide a night of undisturbed sleep, but such places are dangerous for precisely the same reason.
Tomorrow he will find out if he qualifies for accommodation from the State, but he’s not hopeful. He’s not a drug user and in his opinion, this is ironically a disadvantage for him because he thinks the authorities don’t see his needs as critical as those of a drug addict. “The only people who get help on the street, real help, are the ones on drugs and all that’s telling me is to get back on the drugs,” he says.
As we talk a woman puts some change into the upturned cap at his feet. “Thank you so much, have a good day,” he calls after her. She doesn’t look back.
“You’re the first person to talk to me today,” he tells me. It’s not long after seven o’clock and Swanston Street is very busy. Hundreds of people will pass him in just the next hour. “It would be nice to have someone ask me how my day was sometimes,” he says as he watches people walk by.
There are no more than six or seven dollars in his upturned hat and he’s been sat here for nearly thirteen hours. Yesterday he made just three dollars and fifty cents in eleven hours, and the day before that he made even less.
“I’ll sit here for up to fourteen hours a day, get eight people to kick my stuff all over the place, a few people will give me some change, and maybe some days one person might stop and say hello.” I get the impression that it’s a lonely existence sitting here as hundreds of people walk by and barely notice you while those who do try to avoid eye contact.
Just a few meters away a street performer is signing to a small crowd. It leads me to ask if he has ever considered busking. “I can’t sing,” he says, but then he breaks a smile and adds “Though let’s be fair, neither can she.” He’s not wrong. She’s terrible, and I suspect that’s why she’s pulled such a crowd because a small and attractive Asian girl ruining popular songs on the street is an amusing diversion.
Of course, singing skills aside, it takes money to get a license to be a street performer in Melbourne, not to mention equipment costs, as well as the need to have somewhere safe to store that equipment. In reality, busking is not a realistic option for Kyle or indeed most homeless people.
We talk for a while about the buskers, the ones he likes, and the ones he sees making money. “The statue guys make good money, you know those people who are all painted and don’t move unless you put money in their box.” He pretends for a few moments to be a statue, then relaxes, leans back against the wall, and says without a hint of irony. “I couldn’t do that either really. You know, just go someplace and sit still all day long.”