Closer To Home

Gemma Uren

I wonder what pops into your head when you hear the word Poverty?

Is it the slums in far off exotic lands?

A homeless man sleeping on a park bench?

You’d be right to come to think these situations speak strongly of poverty in our world. But I wonder if you’ve ever considered what poverty looks like in your neighbourhood? Next door? In your own backyard?

I run a program for Riverview Community Services called Street Teams. We come alongside people facing a crisis situation every week by helping them practically in their homes with anything they cannot do themselves.

A lot of people think that all Australians are blessed with the same opportunities. We all get a fair go, we get an equal chance to build a successful life.

I probably thought the same thing a few years ago too.

But now I have seen poverty in my own backyard, I cannot hold that belief anymore.

*Julie often lingers in my mind as I ponder poverty in my community. Julie is a single mum with seven children to two absent partners and lives in our southern suburbs. I arrived at Julie’s house admiring her little fairy garden she had out the front. Julie greeted me warmly at the door and let me inside. It was small but she kept it clean with cute trinkets everywhere she has picked up from op shops and the like. We sat down and Julie immediately began pouring her situation out into my open hands. I asked to see outside and I discovered why she had been referred. Rubbish of all kinds, everywhere. One pile was half burnt and nearly two metres high - a friend had tried to burn it off and nearly destroyed her whole home. “Bloody idiot”, she laughed. I could see her embarrassment, I could see she was ashamed of how bad it had gotten. But to me, she was a hero for surviving for so long, for protecting her children from the violence she had experienced, for trying to be kind... to her own detriment it seemed.

Julie’s situation is a classic example of what poverty looks like in Australia. This type of poverty is not primarily material. It is a poverty of the soul, a poverty of community, of relationship, a poverty of the mind and health, and poverty of opportunities. Julie was simply surviving, that is all she knew how to do.

I am often secretly overwhelmed when I am faced with situations like Julie’s. How could I possibly begin to assist this woman? The answer always whispers within me, “Do what you can and do it with all the love in your heart you possibly can, that’s where miracles happen”.

Our volunteer team rocked up on a Saturday morning with our gloves, rakes and wheel barrows in tow and we began helping Julie clear her back yard of rubbish. As I’m digging through the plethora of items that had accumulated over the past 13 years, I couldn’t help but think of this pile as metaphor for her life. It was just one symptom of deeper issues in her world.

If you lifted up a few layers of broken bottles you would find two failed relationships, years of physical and emotional abuse and one partner leaving for prison just as another baby was on the way. You would find the rusted bike frames of her sons before they were caught up in a life of drug use and petty crime - what’s a boy to do when his father doesn’t hang around? What’s a mother to do but her very best? You might find under some charred furniture, the loss of a steady job - no income, months of being out of work and eventual depression, hopelessness, complete loss of motivation and purpose.

You wouldn’t find any of her “friends”, you wouldn’t find any family either. After a bit of digging you can completely understand how this would happen. It could have been me. It could have been you.

The reality is this: Poverty is right next door.

Will you look around your neighbourhood and find people like Julie? I have found Julies in the affluent suburbs too. There are Julies everywhere.


Without community

Without a tribe

Without support

Struggling to survive

Pretending that everything is just fine

Will you look and choose to act?

I hope we all can. We might see poverty in Australia be a thing of the past.


Gemma - Streets Teams and CVS Coordinator

*Names have been changed.