Wishing you all the happiness in the world…

I get the feeling 2017 is going to be a big year. All around me I see people going through enormous change in their lives. It seems that every conversation I have I am hearing messages of transformation and movement, some coming with excruciating pain and heartbreak but all with a sense of the change being necessary. This sense of change and movement afoot reminds me how important it is that we are a constant, stable anchor for people.

Last week I was helping our team with the afternoon closure of the centre. It’s always a tough task, waking people from their sleep, winding up the day’s Netflix viewing, encouraging people to take their last cup of tea or trip to the bathroom. It’s a process that takes about forty minutes and is one we try to do kindly but with a sense of firmness. Our visitors are reluctant to head back out onto the streets. We never feel great about it.  No surprises there.

I was doing a round of the laundry and found a young man, clad in a towel and not much else, with a load of washing in the machine and a clock ticking down until closing time. We chatted and it was his first time visiting with us in six years. He had made his way from out of town to Brisbane that day, with nowhere to stay for the night.  I suggested to him he was going to be in a conundrum, with a bag full of wet clothes and clearly nothing to wear. I offered to grab some clothes for him to put on, to put his wet clothes through the dryer and for one of our team to meet him outside after closing once they were dry.

He looked surprised that I would go out of my way for him. When I asked him what size clothes he wanted he didn’t seem to know – which isn’t uncommon. There is a certain look people get when they are about to spend a night on the streets for the first time in a while. It’s a look that tells the story of what’s gone before. It is often accompanied by a slowness and difficulty responding to fairly basic questions. I have become used to estimating people’s clothing size since working here and I selected some clothes for the young man. On his way out the door he said thank you and goodbye. I said “Maybe I will see you tomorrow?” He said he didn’t think so. The next morning when I walked in he was having breakfast. My heart warmed. I had been thinking of him and hoping he would come back and I was pleased to see him. I hope he stays long enough for us to be what we need to be for him.

Later that morning a visitor I have come to know well over the last few years asked to see me. It turned out he wanted to say goodbye. There have been many times over the years where he has disappeared for periods of time. He never said goodbye on those occasions. He told me this would be the last time we saw each other. I asked him where he was going. My question was met with a wry smile and something about “I will be wandering”.  All I could do was hug him and tell him it had been my greatest pleasure to know him and that I wished him all the happiness in the world.

One of the most confronting parts of our work here is being comfortable with not knowing. People come in and out of our organisation on their own terms. We care for them without attachment. Often we get to see them transform and watch their lives change. Many times we don’t and we wonder where they are and if they are ok. And so we continue to just be. Be the constant, the anchor, the safe space! Be the place that people can come back to when they need to. Be the people who don’t need to know, but care without hesitation.

Sara
CEO
139 Club

You can’t hide love!

Love is not a word used synonymously with working on the front line of community services. This work is a tough gig, characterised by seeing and hearing things that the ordinary person wouldn’t see or hear in their everyday life. The stories our visitors tell us could and should make your eyes sting with tears, your heart ache for the childhood they lost or drive a lump into your throat because of the traumatic experiences they have encountered.

For the most part, frontline staff and volunteers find a space where the pain doesn’t transfer – doesn’t penetrate. We talk a lot about appropriate professional boundaries. We are working with vulnerable people and we need to ensure that neither they nor we are compromised in the process of partnering with them. It’s about them – their goals and aspirations and dreams.

We skirt around the issue of love. We are careful that physical reassurance and comfort, if offered to a distressed person is done in a way that is appropriate and could not be misconstrued.  We don’t talk about love or about loving our visitors. But walk through the floors of 139 Club and you will find that the one word which captures that “get under your skin” feeling this place gives you, is love.

When a person visits with us, without sleep, clean clothes, money, friends or family or the will to keep trying, it’s not just the practical support that makes them believe they can get through another day. When one of our visitors calls in, stricken with panic and ready to flee from the troubles chasing them – it’s not just the calming demeanour of our staff and volunteers that helps them make a choice about the next right step. We can call it “care” or “empathy”!  But it’s love! Accepting, unconditional love for people whether we know them or not!

At Christmas time, on the day of our Christmas lunch, I decided to take a bold step. I wore a sign that said “Free Hugs”. I was completely open to whether people would avail themselves of the opportunity to hug me. I was frightened and uncomfortable – not of people wanting to hug me, but of people not wanting to. I, like every other person in the world, is afraid of rejection.  I did it because I thought the best Christmas present I could give to our visitors was the opportunity to feel connected and loved, a feeling many of them seldom experience. I hugged about 100 people that day, many of them more than once.

Our visitors didn’t want air hugs – the polite type where you go through the motions of hugging but your heart isn’t in it. They wanted bear hugs, hugs with meaning, hugs that said “I love you whether I know you or not.” There was nothing inappropriate about it, nothing crossing over a professional boundary. It was done in the spirit of fun, of Christmas and because I wanted to show that it’s ok to love.

Over the course of the next year people will come and go. Every time we journey with someone and see them taking steps forwards we will believe in them, feel excited, hopeful and do whatever we can to help them make their dreams a reality. There will be plenty of occasions where we see them come back to us, their efforts dashed, their purpose failing, their lives lapsing back into homelessness, addiction and offending behaviour. Sometimes that is hard for us to accept. There will be days when we find it hard to look at someone who had the world at their feet and chose to walk a different path. But it will make no difference to what we do in the end, because that is what love is all about.

We can pretend that underneath our professional personas and our appropriate boundaries and our policy ridden and carefully formulated practice frameworks that it’s all about getting the day’s work done. But really, the reason we are all here, in its simplest form, is love!

Sara
CEO
139 Club

The Fireside at Christmas

When I first came to work at 139 Club, I had never worked in community services. My background was a broad exposure to professional worlds across health, family business, not for profits and large commercial enterprise. Wanting to establish credibility, I turned to the reading material and research on the issues of homelessness. Theoretically it helped, but it left me feeling cold, without conviction. Two years on I have a fire raging in my belly, but it’s not just about homelessness. Homelessness in and of itself is not “a thing”. It’s a symptom. An end result of a range of circumstances and beliefs and experiences that happen to real people. The fire in my belly is because of them, who they are, how they got here and what they face today and in the future.

Someone new to the sector recently remarked to me that they felt they needed to “get their head around the issues in homelessness”!  I gave them a piece of advice. Create your own story, your own view and your own dialogue! Come and spend time with us and allow your observational skills to give you the information you need to articulate within yourself a way to tell it, explain it and help others understand. You don’t need textbooks and research and data. You just need to care enough and be curious enough to pay attention and organise your thoughts.

As we come to the close of 2016, I reflect on what a momentous year it has been for me in finding a way to articulate what I have learned from our guests and why they find themselves in the situations they are in. It has been a year of me leaning in with our guests, observing, asking, listening, formulating and understanding. It has been a year where they have allowed me to use my ability to tell stories to help people understand their world.

Last week, the very talented music group “Topology” came to visit with us to run a songwriting workshop. No musical experience was required. No one turned up!  So, up they got and down into our courtyard they walked with their instruments. There was a small group milling around. I tested the waters to see how the group felt about Topology playing a little. They were hesitant. So Topology sat a small distance away and started to jam. Five minutes passed and I gauged with our guests their comfort with moving them closer. They agreed.

The next hour was spent jamming, singing, requesting songs, smiling, laughing and connecting. The mood was light. Blessed with a better than average voice but usually crippled with fear about letting people hear it, I found myself singing with Topology loud and proud, for the first time in 15 years. We were all living in the moment, our problems forgotten, our hearts happy and hopeful. Topology cared enough and were curious enough to pay attention, be flexible and allow the experience to unfold even though it didn’t fit the original purpose of them coming here. They are coming back in the new year to bring their musical medicine back to us. We will write a song, just follow a different path to get there. We are all excited.

There is a lot to be grateful for as we head into Christmas. I am grateful for our guests and the time I have spent with them this year. I have truly embraced learning about what makes them tick. That includes those who, on the odd occasion may have cursed at me, or told me I was doing a rubbish job as CEO. I welcome it all. I am grateful for the talented, eclectic and beautiful Board, volunteers, students and staff who I work with. Spending time with them makes me incredibly happy. I admire who they are as people more than they know. On days when I don’t feel strong they give me strength. On days when I am out of ideas they come up with ways out of the woods.

I am grateful for the amazing business partners and supporter groups and individuals who have allowed me to help them understand a side to the world that is generally sanitised and swept away.  I am grateful to you, our supporters, for allowing me the opportunity to write for you and share with you my own view of our work and the people we support. So many of you write to me and tell me how my stories make you feel and that helps me to know we are making a difference.

I want to leave you with some final thoughts. When people come here and meet with our guests they often say to me, ”I thought I had problems, but I am just going to be grateful for what I have from now on.”  I take a different view and don’t encourage people to think like this. There is a point where a person who is homeless believes they need to settle, to accept only what society feels they deserve and to be grateful to be alive despite having nothing and no one. That point may have come early in their life and predetermined a path into marginalisation, or it may have come after life knocked them down many times. The biggest lesson you can learn from us and our work is to believe you deserve the best. If your job doesn’t bring you meaning, work out what does. If your friendships or relationships don’t make you feel loved and honoured, find some that do. If you feel empty, find out how to love yourself and feel complete. Don’t settle and feel you should be grateful for things that don’t make you thrive. Believe! Strive! Our guests want that for you! We want that for everyone!

From all of us at 139 Club, we wish you a wonderful Christmas and look forward to sharing with you again in 2017.

Sara

CEO

139 Club

Mirrors!

I’ve been thinking a lot about mirrors lately. There are mirrors everywhere in life if you look for them. I’m not talking about the kind you have on your bathroom wall. I’m talking about our interactions with other people. Your experience of an interaction with someone is often exactly the same as theirs. How a person makes you feel is often how you make them feel. How a person makes you feel can tell you a lot about yourself. It doesn’t always hold true, but it’s common enough to learn something from it.

I’ve been thinking about how the mirrors work inside 139 Club. I mentioned to a colleague recently that there are folk who are saying hi and chatting to me after I have been passing them in the hall for nearly two years. Then I thought about the mirror. What did this tell me about me? I realised that sometimes I find it difficult to walk into a courtyard of people and just start talking to them. Sometimes, like many, I feel a little awkward or shy around people I don’t know well. So is it them or is it me? I would say it’s both. I have learned that I have an opportunity to open a door of connection for our guests by the way I behave and what I say. If I can take the first step, they will follow.

We recently spent time interviewing a range of guests to our service, to understand what brings them to us and what their perceptions are about who we need to be. There was some affirming feedback with powerful but simple learnings. People visiting us highlighted the impact of the small things our team does like saying hello, stopping for a chat or acknowledging them from a distance.

A few weeks back I stopped to talk with a young man who has been visiting with us for about a year. When he first arrived he was wired on drugs, pacing and constantly moving, talking non-stop about nonsensical things, his words full of grandiose statements about his abilities and talents. His mother was addicted to amphetamines throughout her pregnancy, he was removed to foster care, had severe behavioural and development challenges and addictions to a range of prescription and illicit drugs. His energy agitated the people around him. There were a lot of days where it was easier not to engage with him, particularly if one was short on time. It took a lot to remain calm in his presence.

The bloke I spoke to recently was a different man. He was not particularly approachable, but I decided to approach anyway. At first I stood and chatted to someone close by. He was playing some music and I started to sing the words.

“Do you know these guys?” he said, looking surprised that I recognised his music.

“Sure do – got a heap of their music on my phone.”

“Ha! “ he said – laughing to himself.

The door was open so I walked through. I shared with him my thoughts on how different he seemed. He told me a little about his life, his addictions, his relationships. At times I could see him leave me, lost inside his own thoughts, experiencing a memory he wasn’t up for sharing, but laughing to himself as he relived it. He talked about how he had been off the drugs and how hard that had been, how he was caring for his health, eating well and exercising. I told him I thought he was doing very well and had the smarts to keep going. I saw him leave me again, lost for a moment as he processed what I said. Then he chuckled, looked up and said “thanks”. I heard him ask the person next to him as I walked away “What’s her name again?”

You don’t have to know someone well to share a story, your thoughts or your history. Be the reflection you want others to see when they look at themselves. If you want people to care, be caring. If you want people to feel like it’s ok to ask for help, be helpful. If you want forgiveness, be forgiving. If you want someone to act with empowerment, be empowered. More and more we realise that the small interactions can be as powerful as the big ones. A few moments or hours spent with someone can leave them reflecting for days and weeks. Small events can be life changing. Our sphere of influence is bigger than we know. Explore it!

Just us….all of us!

I’ve been thinking about why people volunteer with us. There are a range of different reasons. Many of them start with something like “I just want to give something back.” That statement is pretty broad, and is often what people say when they haven’t yet identified why they want to be involved. In the last few years many volunteers have told me that spending time working with us has helped them through very difficult times in their own life, helped them develop a sense of identity and given them a place where they feel accepted.

One morning recently on a particularly busy day, a colleague came to tell me that one of our volunteers wasn’t feeling well and was being assessed by the nurse. They were concerned because she seemed quite tearful. I went to see her and she said over and over “I’m so sorry, I don’t want to let you down.” She said it in between sobs so it took a while for me to really hear what she was saying. I reassured her that the other volunteers in her work area would be fine and after being given the all clear by the nurse she agreed to come and sit for a drink and a rest. She was still very tearful and eventually said “You don’t know what you’ve done! All this….this!” and beckoned at the tea room with her arms.  I thought at first she might have been saying that we had done something to upset her, but her son, a fellow volunteer who was there with us looked at me and said “Mum means that in a good way.” Between her crying and me catching her emotion and getting teary also, I realised, without her needing to elaborate, what she meant.

She was trying to tell me that she had found a place where she felt she belonged, felt part of a family, found a sense of deep satisfaction from being able to contribute and felt that there was a sense of being one amongst equals. It is a lovely aspect of our team at 139 Club. We all have different roles, be it as a CEO, a volunteer driving a truck, a person providing one on one support to our guests, we are all people sharing an experience of working together. I gave her a copy of this to read to test her comfort levels with me publishing it and she told me I have articulated her thoughts exactly.

I smiled to myself recently when I realised that a man who had come to install some new equipment in our building had, after about four days, become part of our team. He ate with us, shared in our jokes and storytelling and when he finished his work after ten days told me how much he had enjoyed his time with us. “It’s been eye opening and a lot of fun.” were his parting words. After spending the last five days with our electricians they left today. They came in before leaving and thanked us for our hospitality and for creating a warm and welcoming environment to work in. It’s the same with the man who empties our sharps containers. His visits with us are now nothing to do with the containers themselves, but about the chats we all have and the stories we share. The people who come to bring supplies to our kitchen, our fire inspectors and visiting groups are the same. They are all part of us, and we become part of them. We like seeing their smiling faces and hearing how they are. They all come with an openness and readiness to join us for a short time.

We are not to everyone’s taste. Someone recently told us that we brought “undesirables” to the area. I always feel sad to hear people say things like this because they are words that breed separation, distrust and hatred. They are words that come from a place where the differences between people are highlighted. It’s easy to disconnect and detach from people when we focus on our differences. Them and us. It’s everywhere in our world. When we focus on the commonalities we have with others we start to inch closer to them and we begin to care. Them and us starts to disappear. We all start life being born in the same way (relatively speaking), with the same needs. Somewhere along the way our lives start to look different, but there are always elements we have in common. I sat across from a man today and he told me I was glowing with health. I told him I was worried about him because he wasn’t glowing, and in fact looked very unwell. What we had in common in that moment is there was no them and us, just an us. Maybe that’s why people find us. Maybe that’s why many people like us. The magic is in what we all have in common. The magic is there is just an us. All of us.