Enter Gary Lockhart, Streetwalk Program Manager with the organisation that made altruism a household word, Youth off the Streets (YOTS). From 7pm up to 3am from Sunday to Thursday, Gary finds a way to connect with the faceless young disciples of the city – and show them that they’re not invisible.
When I initially approached Youth off the Streets to write about them for my soon-to-be-launched website, securing the opportunity to spend an evening walking the streets with Gary was the best-case scenario. Since the best-case scenario never happens to me, I merely asked for an interview with a member of the team about what they did and why they did it. And then, finally. The lemons.
A few weeks later and I’m passenger side in our car ride into the city, while Gary explains to me what the night might entail. He informs me that while some nights are madly busy, others are dead quiet. And while it shames to me to admit it – I mean, youth OFF the streets is the whole point, really – I DO want to meet some of the kids who have chosen to defy the theory that we need a roof over our heads to survive.
Gary’s been working on the streetwalking project for the past 5 months, but he’s been with the organisation for 13 years. He spent 10 of those working in a YOTS refuge, and then moved on to other areas of the organisation before he headed up the streetwalking project. Although it was briefly introduced a few years ago and repealed because of existing assistance, Father Chris Riley decided to relaunch the program when he discovered that there were still youth on the streets who needed a helping hand. And it was a good call, evidently – in the past month alone, Gary has counted 63 new young people he now knows on the streets by name – and these are just the kids he has seen more than once.
As we make our way to the food van outside of The Domain, street-diners are scattered but the young people seem to have all dissipated by now. Turns out, some of them do manage to stick to the 7pm supper routine even after they left the place that created it. Gary says that even if there were young people there, he wouldn’t necessarily approach them. If it was his first time seeing them, he’d make eye contact – and then do the same thing the next night, and the next, until they knew he wasn’t just another curious stranger wondering what went wrong. When they finally feel like he’s approachable, they typically ask him what he’s doing there and he tells them – and their response is usually friendly and appreciative. As he puts it, nobody has ever caused him trouble, and the youth are always polite.
That is evident at our next stop, Town Hall. As we reach a group of teenagers who curiously resemble my friends and I on a night out, their faces light up when they see Gary approach.
“Gary! We’re so glad you’re here!” says Girl A.
“Gary! We need a ride home. Can you give us one?” says Girl B.
As we wait for them to hug their tragic I Don’t Know When or if I’ll Ever See You Again Farewells (ahem. tomorrow.), one girl comes up to us and asks Gary if he knows anyone she can talk to. She REALLY needs someone to talk to.
Amidst the yelps and shrieks from the excited goodbyes, Gary pulls out his phone and calls a counsellor who can help. He leaves a message on the counsellor’s voicemail with the girl’s details. She’ll get a phone call tomorrow.
Even among all this clamour, I can almost hear society’s shrill announcement of “Kids Gone Wrong” above it. But the thing about Gary is, there is no judgement. He’s not there to get them into trouble, or force them to go anywhere, or make things difficult – he takes the approach of a friendly big brother type, because he knows that’s how he’ll get the results.
“The purpose of streetwalking is to connect with youth who are homeless or at risk. If they need accommodation, we’ll help them try and secure some. We have food and blankets to give them. It’s a friendly approach, because our main goal is to make them aware that help exists with our organisation and elsewhere. There are places to go,” he says.
The ride home to their housing commission is a cringe-worthy trip down the rather blurred Memory Lane of teenage intoxication, as the conversation shifts from boys to pet rats to, most importantly, school. And rumour has it, people are more honest when they’re drunk.
“Gary, I really want to go that school you were talking about – can you call them and see if there’s a placement for me tomorrow?” says Girl A.
“Yah, me too. Oh, and Girl C – check if there’s a place for her, too,” says Girl B.
You can almost see the pen scribbling its note in Gary’s head. He WILL make that phone call tomorrow. After all, it is education that breaks the cycle of poverty. There are about four schools which kids who don’t fit into the mainstream can go to – and many do incredibly well once they’re given the freedom to do it their way.
As we wave the girls “Goodbye, You’re Welcome, You Take Care, Too,” Gary tells me the purpose of these drives is far from the destination. Getting the kids home is just a bonus.
“It’s an opportunity to chat with them and get them to open up to you," he says.
"By being there consistently, you break through their trust issues a little and give them someone to confide in."
The girls we took home spend their days on the streets and their nights sleeping – or not – from one house to another. As their parents clearly do not take on an active role in their lives, and because they possibly grapple with the same authority issues most teenagers (and when I say most, I mean I) have had – having someone like Gary around is sometimes their only chance at choosing a life that leads in a more stable direction.
Gary cites the case of a girl who came home one day to find her parents had moved home without her. She stayed in the abandoned house for four months before her neighbours intervened, and then she was relocated to a youth refuge, where she met a boy she so desperately wanted to rely on. And rely on him she did – even when he got her hooked on heroin and started pimping her out to his friends. With people like Gary around, girls like her are able to rely on someone who isn’t going to cause them harm.
We continue to walk around Town Hall and Hyde Park, and eventually stop into the city’s McDonalds, where internet junkies are able to get full-night access for $10 from 8pm to 8am. Gary approaches a couple kids who he knows from the rounds, and promises to bring them food in a few hours. This is the pretty much the equivalent of their youth hostel, except it has World of Warcraft to provide the entertainment, too.
One of the boys we just met comes from an extremely wealthy background, but he felt so alienated from his family that he decided to leave home. He refuses to go back and prefers to exist in the anonymity of the streetlights that so playfully resist darkness than the security of a refuge. For now, his favourite subject seems to be independence.
I couldn’t help but feel that so many of us (or maybe it’s just me, again) felt the same way when we were younger – the difference is we (I) didn’t have the guts to leave. Oh, and our (my) parents would hunt us (me) down and kill us (me). “Most of the time, these young people feel a certain disconnection from their family. If their friends are also homeless, there is a feeling of belonging, and they end up making a family for themselves,” says Gary.
After a short drive and stop at the YOTS food van, we bring the boy back some of what’s left and take a bag of fruit over to a group of teens who are living on their own in North Sydney. They met on the streets, and ended up scrounging up enough to share a two bedroom apartment together. All eight or so of them.
When we get there, Gary is welcomed by the usual displays of smiles and worship, and as I start talking to the teens, I suddenly realise we have a lot in common. One flip of the dice and one of them could have been me, or my sibling, or my cousin. Their favourite movie is Almost Famous, they’re wearing South Park tee shirts and they have an impeccable selection of 80’s music on their iPod. Looks like the city isn’t the only thing we share.
As our night comes to an end and we make our way home, I ask Gary about his background, and why he chose to do what he does.
“I always knew I wanted to work with people, but I actually studied bio and found the work incredibly boring. So I went travelling for five years, and I spent a lot of that time in India,” he says.
“When I got back, I studied welfare at Tafe and went onto youth work, and I still love it. I get to help the most needy, many of whom are in an immediate crisis situation, and sometimes I am there at opportune times when they are the most upset. They are so appreciative and vibrant, which makes it all worth it.
“I learn from them. Young people have the resilience, the ability, to move on.”
To volunteer with Youth off the Streets or to find out more information, please visit their website.
words: Seema Duggal
*I undertook this evening of streetwalking as a volunteer, not as a journalist, and I therefore was not able to talk to the youth as a journalist. This is merely a reflection on my experience.