Documenting the Yarra’s homeless

Filming homelessness on the Yarra
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A university student making a documentary on homelessness along the Yarra aims to help us understand "how they came to that’’. Molly Jones reports.

A Swinburne University film and television student making a documentary on homelessness along Melbourne’s Yarra River hopes it will help “strip away” stereotypes.

Patrick McSweeney says the documentary he is producing, called Down by the Yarra, says we should be wary of judging homeless people.

“People have their own reason for this situation happening to them, their own reason for life leading them in a certain direction,’’ he says.

McSweeney says despite the stigma surrounding homelessness, people must be seen as individuals. “We want to strip away the typical stereotype of homeless people and show they are people. They deserve to have their opinion heard.’’

The number of rough sleepers is increasing, with about 30 homeless camps around Melbourne’s CBD, says McSweeney. In the past two years, homelessness has increased by 74 percent, according to a report in The Age.

A homeless man in the Yarra’s Batman Park, who declined to be named, says setting up in the park allows more opportunity for getting money for food and water. “We’re allowed to be here, it’s a public space for people of the public,’’ the man says.

The man, 47, has called Batman park on the northern bank of the Yarra home for the past five weeks. “I like the openness and greenness of Batman park.’’

Originally from Devonport, he moved to Melbourne due to the lack of services for the homeless. “I could never steal or beg. It got to the point where I went two days and I hadn’t eaten, and I saw someone left a bagel on the table and ate that.’’

Before taking to the streets of Melbourne, he says his mother was diagnosed with melanoma, and he went to care for her, at her home in Werribee. “My brother wanted to put her in a home, but I couldn’t do that to her,’’

After his mother died, he was left with no inheritance but says he stays positive given his situation. “I like the peacefulness of being next to the river.’’

Previously spending time “in lock up’’, the man now enjoys the freedom. “I kind of like the lifestyle of waking up when the sun comes up and sleeping when it goes down.’’

The man says he is working his way towards employment. “I want to get my white card so I can work on construction sites, have a job, somewhere to stay, especially with winter coming.’’

Student documentary maker Patrick McSweeney says it’s a simplistic view to look at homeless people as a problem. “We see them as a collective, like they all meet a certain criteria. They all take drugs, they might have mental and anger problems rather than people spending hours and hours trying to find coins to feed themselves, and how they came to that.’’

People understand homelessness, but don’t want to change it, says McSweeney. “It’s always going to be talked about, but it’s how we talk about it. Change happens slowly, but it will only happen if people are open to conversation.’’

Everybody fears homelessness at some point in their lives, McSweeney says. “Everybody can understand how it is to be in a position of powerlessness. As the years go by things get tougher and tougher and options can become more limited.’’

The Narre Warren Christian Church’s soup kitchen serves meals to 2000 homeless and other people every week.

Head of the Narre Warren Transit Soup Kitchen, Pastor Keith Vethaak, has been giving his services for eight years. “We feel, as Christians, we want to show as much love to people as we can.’’

“We accept everyone, we want to help as much as we can,’’ Pastor Vethaak says.

Being homeless is no fault of their own and that the number of young mothers becoming homeless is also increasing, the pastor says. “We have two young women living in their cars with their children due to domestic violence, they have nowhere to go.’’

“We also see a lot of homeless men who can’t get accommodation because of pets,’’ says Pastor Vethaak.

“One man got into housing commission but had his stuff stolen, so he feels he needs his dog to keep him safe.’’ The Narre Warren Christian Church soup kitchen is open three days a week and also offers laundry and shower services for the homeless.

“We try and support them as much as we can,’’ says Pastor Vethaak.