Giving Sydney’s streeties a voice

3 March 2021 | Posted In: #138 Autumn 2021, Archive, Homelessness, People,

Whether calling for greater investment in crisis accommodation or helping young people break the cycle of sleeping rough, AJ was a committed champion for Sydney’s homeless. Jake Kendall reports.

He was the ideal advocate for the homeless. He had the lived experience. “I lived on the streets of Sydney, sleeping rough, for six of the past 12 years,” AJ wrote in his memoirs. “The circumstances that put me there were my own inability to come to grips with a drinking problem. I have never sought help for this nor has it ever been offered, not that it would have made a difference. We are what we are.”

AJ — who passed away at the beginning of the year — was the founding member of StreetCare, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s advisory committee on homelessness. StreetCare began as a grassroots movement in late 2008 on the streets of Woolloomooloo. It was there that AJ would be found encouraging mates to join with him in persuading NGOs to consult and engage with their users — the ‘streeties’. “AJ was a tenacious and committed champion for people experiencing homelessness,” says PIAC in a statement on its website.

AJ and other StreetCare members would consult with people on the streets and ask them what they needed. That feedback would then be passed on to government departments. “Through his involvement with StreetCare,” says PIAC, “AJ effectively represented the views of the homeless to the highest levels of government.” Such consumer participation and engagement has since become commonplace and is now regarded as standard practice in the sector.

AJ’s advocacy took many forms: he produced an evocative series of photos documenting life on the streets of inner Sydney and was known for his thoughtful and powerful writing. “What I called home was two layers of cardboard — the ‘orthopaedic king’,” reflected AJ in his memoirs. “I would wake at 5.30am after a night of being interrupted by street-sweeping machines, trucks and buses whose drivers in the early hours treat the streets of Sydney like Le Mans. Why do streeties drink? Sometimes it’s just to get a decent night’s sleep. I pack up and am on the streets by 5.45am. It’s best to get an early start so you do not have to endure the evil looks of the public — it is as though they spit on you with their eyes.”

To those who knew him, AJ’s memoir perfectly encapsulates his forthright demeanour. “AJ was well-known within the sector for his down-to-earth outlook,” says PIAC. “AJ was never afraid to tell you, or anyone for that matter, exactly how it was.” As this extract, describing a visit to the department of housing, demonstrates: “My name and number are called so I proceed to the designated booth and go through the motions with the smug person sitting on the other side of the counter. She tells me that I must be patient. I suddenly snap and ask her what the criteria are for a homeless person to be housed and can she put it in a written statement so I can shove it up her arse.”

It was AJ’s unique insights into the difficulties and frustrations of dealing with government agencies and service providers that made him such a powerful and credible advocate for the city’s homeless. “PIAC is indebted to AJ for his many years of service and contribution to the StreetCare group and we honour his impressive legacy.”

That legacy includes campaigning for greater investment in crisis accommodation and public housing; it’s a legacy that helped shape initiatives to assist young people break the cycle of sleeping rough; a legacy that helped establish a holistic approach to tackling homelessness. But it is perhaps this remark that best sums up the essence of AJ’s advocacy: “I think it’s very important that people who have lived on the street have a voice,” he once said. Thanks to AJ, they did.

Read ISV magazine in full here