Monday, October 6, 2008


St Vincent de Paul Society was founded in Victoria by Fr Gerald Ward at St Francis' Church, Melbourne on 5 March 1854. For over 150 years, home visitation has been the core work of the Society. Volunteers visit people in their homes with aims of helping men, women and families to break their cycle of poverty and disadvantage. Food are also being given out on the streets to the homeless as well as delivered to the homes of poor people in Night Patrol Vans.

Early last month, I volunteered to join members of "Light House", a cell group of Cross Culture Church, to deliver soup, sandwiches and cordial drinks to poor people who live in boarding houses. My visit to the appalling and dilapidated rooms of the poor people was a visit that served as a constant reminder of how extremely blessed I am even though I am epileptic.

At the end of the visitations, my son and I had sore arms and painful hands as a result of carrying heavy basket loads of sandwiches, thermal flask of hot soup and big tubs of cordial drink. To both of us the temporary pain we had were gratifying pain knowing that we had done the least to the poor.

Count our blessings and look beyond epilepsy. There are so many people in worse conditions then just being epileptic.

Perspective from Melbourne's poorest people
- Catherine Deveny
October 8, 2008 - 12:00AM

When you have nothing, Wall Street's crash seems irrelevant. THE other day I went out on a soup van that provides food for the poor. Living on a pension must be difficult enough. Imagine how hard it is living on a pension and suffering a mental illness, being a survivor of abuse, battling addiction or coping with your life imploding. Now that's a full-time job. Try that and being homeless.

I'm surrounded by middle-class whingers obsessed by losing a few grand in superannuation who are driven by insecurity and racked by fear. Fear of what? Chances are it'll never happen. In five years most of these people will be in the same house, same car, same relationship and same job. Time for an icy-cold can of perspective. The soup van visited half a dozen boarding houses. Some made me proud to be part of a society that treats its poor so well. Other places made me feel sick. Smelly, tiny rooms crammed with possessions and sadness. Sick, dirty people lying on beds, smoking and watching television all day. A smacked-out bloke looking straight through me as I thrust a cup of soup into his hand. He didn't say thank you. Why would he? I wondered what horror it felt like waking up and being him.

Behind one door were two sad-looking blokes with stained beards stinking of dope, beer and unwashed clothes. They had a dog. "What's her name?" I asked. "Bitch," they said. Norm and June lived in a small room. With one single bed he was lying in the bed. I assume she slept in the chair. They were both about 70.

Some doors we were told not to knock on because the inhabitants were a bit aggro. I got the feeling that the words "a bit aggro" were an understatement. The words I could smell were volatile, violent and scary.

Kids live in these boarding houses? I didn't see any. Which was lucky. If I had, I would have collapsed into tears and had to fight every impulse to bundle them up, take them home, feed them a roast and tuck them into bed so they could wake up and not be afraid of what was behind any door. I hope they feel loved.

Other rooms were just as small, but clean and well looked after. One well-dressed bloke told us he'd been given tickets to Mame and he'd had a wonderful time. Upstairs lived a tall regal-looking African guy. In his room were a bed and a computer. On the walls were company structures written on butcher's paper. "What's that about?" I asked as I fished him out a couple of sausage rolls. "That is for my study. I will finish a business degree in five weeks and go back to Sudan and work for the Government."

"Never slept with an ugly woman," said old Bob. "Woken up with a few though." We all laughed, a dozen of us with flasks of soup, baskets of sandwiches and insulated bags of hot food sitting in his decrepit but neat boarding house room. "I love putting a smile on people's faces," he said, "because then they go out and put a smile on someone else's face." And we left. Old Bob seemed happier than most of the people I know with jobs, families, someone to curl up with at night and a roof over their heads.

Tone of the vannies told me that old Bob is dying very fast and very painfully. While sharing a squalid, cramped boarding house with blokes who are down on their luck, high on drugs, low on cash or off their heads. Bob's on his own. And chances are he'll die in that room. But Old Bob always manages to put on a show when the soup van arrives.

And you know what? He doesn't give a stuff about Wall Street. That's why I went out on the soup van. To meet some people who weren't obsessed by the global financial crisis. Why would they be? Things couldn't get much worse.

About 9.30pm, as we were about to leave the last boarding house, a woman with twin girls, about nine years old, approached us. They took a good 20 minutes to work out what they wanted to eat. "They're fussy, those kids," said one of the vannies affectionately. As we pulled away from the kerb, I watched the mum and her daughters sit eating sandwiches and drinking soup like they'd never seen food before. My gut fell. The vannies told me that they were regulars.

Let's hope the economic meltdown is a spiritual awakening that helps us be grateful for what we have and not worry about what will probably never happen. If your home is suddenly feeling like a house of cards, may I suggest a night out on the soup van.

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