City's shame: Its homeless
By Samantha Turnbull and Jacklyn Wagner
DENNIS ROBERTS rocks back and forth rubbing his hands together, steam floating from his mouth into the cold night air. At the next bench along the platform, two younger men sit wrapped in blankets staring at the ground. The defunct Lismore train station has become a pseudo shelter for the homeless since the closure of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line. Dennis, 45, usually sleeps in a broken-down car, but is waiting at the station for the heavy rain to pass before he makes his way 'home'. The former heroin addict has been without a house on and off for a decade and needs to stay in Lismore for access to methadone. "I have eight kids, so what money I do get now goes to them," he said. "People need to get out there and see how we're living. They go to their jobs, come home to their houses and don't see what it's like. "Even you girls won't know what it's like after one night." Dennis is right. Jacklyn and I have at least three layers of clothing on and full stomachs. We also have beds to go to in the morning. While we work through the night on adrenalin, we cannot begin to understand the exhaustion felt by those around us. Not long after 1am we meet Michelle Hill at the train station. Michelle, 52, suffers from schizophrenia and moved to Lismore from Coffs Harbour two months ago so she could attend the Richmond Clinic. However, since arriving she has not been able to find accommodation. When we met her she said she had been promised a room in a South Lismore boarding house, but it was offered to someone else at the last minute. "I've been homeless before, but I'm desperate tonight because it's so cold," she said. "I don't know what to do. My blanket has been stolen and it's not safe to be out here when you're a woman." I give Michelle my blanket and Steve from the soup kitchen pours her a coffee from his flask. She then calls the police from a payphone and begs to be allowed to stay in their station foyer for the night. Half an hour passes and a paddy wagon arrives. Two officers take Michelle to the station and let her sit in the foyer until morning. The temperature drops to around three degrees and most of the homeless we see after 2am are sound asleep. After visiting squats in parks and under buildings throughout the city, we're surprised how well-hidden some people's sleeping places are. Mattresses lay close to schools, shops, churches and houses, but are usually packed up before sunrise. As a hint of sunlight peers through the clouds we head to North Lismore's twin bridges. Our footsteps wake Wally Murray, 61, who has been homeless for 40 years and has slept under the bridges for the past three. He is on a disability pension and admits he has a problem with alcohol, but believes no one deserves to be on the streets. Up to 10 people often sleep under the bridges with him as vehicles and pedestrians pass above, oblivious to the community below. "It's one of the warmest spots down here. But I've had a few snakes slither through and some of my clothes stolen," he said. "When it floods I head up the hill, but I'm getting too old to keep moving around. I'd like a shelter it's needed badly." About 8am, the men and women we met during the night gather at the soup kitchen in South Lismore. Sunday is the kitchen's busiest day, so we thank our new friends and say goodbye. We were happy to be going home to our families, but were filled with a new sadness for those we left behind. The cycle we'd experienced for just 12 hours was beginning again for everyone else with no end in sight.