Ralph’s street retreats

What can students from a Catholic college on the leafy north shore learn from the homeless, asks journalist Sue Osborne.

Plenty, says retired teacher and IEU member Ralph Kershler, who has been taking students on ‘street retreats’ for 35 years.

I joined Ralph and a small group of Year 10 students from St Leo’s Catholic College Wahroonga on a crisp winter’s day in Sydney, to meet the people many prefer to ignore.

Ralph started at the college in the 1980s as a ‘regular teacher’, became the Religious Education Coordinator and now, at 73, he’s a self-described “nobody” who, every fortnight, takes students who volunteer for the experience into the city’s hidden side.

He also takes teachers and administrators from the college and the Broken Bay Catholic Schools Office on his street retreats, as well as his own children and grandchildren. It’s the legacy of his work that keeps Ralph motivated.

“I had a former student ring me the other day – she’s now 45 and a doctor. She said she always prioritises the homeless at her practice because of her experience of the street retreat.”

Our group’s first meeting was with one of Ralph’s regulars called Eddie, who hadn’t been around for a while.

“I’ve been seeing the same characters since 1987,” Ralph said. “Sometimes they disappear for a few weeks and then suddenly they’re back. You wonder what’s happened to them in the meantime.”

Ralph is relieved to find Eddie in his usual spot on Martin Place, where he has been selling The Big Issue for about 10 years.

Turns out he’s had a stint in hospital and was released into a hostel. But Eddie couldn’t settle at the hostel, sharing a room with a man “who snored like a chainsaw”.

He was glad to be back in his regular home for the past decade, under the eaves of one of Sydney’s iconic buildings.

“It’s a good part of town, I’ve got a good view of the Botanic Gardens, my mate’s there, it’s safe,” Eddie said. He describes his patch of outdoor concrete with the pride most people reserve for their million-dollar properties.

Originally from Auckland, Eddie said he used to work in his brother’s business, selling swimming pools and spas.

“My brother was a rich lister, the business was worth $65 million,” Eddie said.

Eddie was involved in an industrial accident that almost led to the amputation of one of his hands, then his brother’s business went belly up. Eddie went to England and started “drinking like a maniac”. He finally ended up on the streets of Sydney.

Ralph said wet weather seemed to trigger Eddie’s binges.

Eddie is generous with his time for the students, happy to share his street philosophy in exchange for a stick of deodorant and some cash.

“Every day’s an adventure,” Eddie said. “You never know who you’re going to meet. I’m happier now than I was working for my brother, that’s weird isn’t it?”

Eddie regards having no “overheads” – rent – as a positive. “I’ve hit rock bottom plenty of times; you’ve got to remember there’s always a better day around the corner,” he said.

“Life’s not supposed to be easy, it’s a roller coaster you’ve got to ride. Do stuff that you want to do and makes you happy. Travel. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke.”

Ralph’s Street Retreat strongly intersects with the Groups in Context section of the Community and Family Studies syllabus, which looks at specific groups in the community such as the homeless, and how they relate to society and how society reacts to them. It could tie in with many other courses, such as Legal Studies, Society and Culture, Economics, Studies of Religion and others.

I’ve hit rock bottom plenty of times, you’ve got to remember there’s always a better day around the corner. Life’s not supposed to be easy, it’s a roller coaster you’ve got to ride.

Faith in Good Shepherd

We meet Kayleen. She’s sitting on the pavement near some traffic lights with a sign saying she’s deaf. We’re not sure how much she can understand us, but she’s grateful for the blankets Ralph and the students give her. There’s a touching moment when she shows her Good Shepherd card to Ralph.

“Her faith keeps her going,” he tells the students.

Ralph recalls a young businessman approaching him and a group of students and telling them they were idiots for giving their money to junkies who were going to spend it on drugs or drink.

“I told him to go away – we can spend our money on whoever we want. I tell them we never judge or ask questions. Jesus was like that, he just accepted people for whoever they were.”

Next port of call is the Station Ltd on Erskine Street. Serving the homeless since 1978, reliant on government grants and donations, Station Ltd provides a drop in service for up to 150 people a day. Clients can take a shower, have breakfast and lunch and leave their possessions secured. Housing Support workers will try to find them a place to stay, but there aren’t enough beds to go around.

The Station Ltd is decorated with clients’ art and has a homely and relaxed atmosphere.

Some of the students are moved and heartened by the respect shown to the clients by Housing Support Workers Gordon Denton and Franco Orsatti and the rest of the team. Gordon said their visitor numbers have been rising steadily.

According to 2016 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, homelessness in Australia has risen 13% in five years, with a 28% jump in over 55s experiencing homelessness, the fastest growing age bracket.

Gordon feels the true figure for homelessness in Sydney is well over the few hundred estimate usually given.

Domestic violence and family breakdown have led to an increase in homelessness in both genders, but middle-aged men, often with mental health or substance abuse and gambling addictions, make up the bulk of their clientele.

The Station Ltd’s drug and alcohol program assists through an early intervention method for clients struggling with substance abuse. The program also offers education on the harms that substance abuse does, and takes a harm-minimisation approach.

Many of the clients cannot read and write and are often not on social-security benefits as they are unable to fill out the forms, provide ID or fulfil the reporting requirements of Newstart.

Gordon and the team help as much as they can. Those under 21 are referred to other services such as Kids off the Streets, but Gordon remembers spending a day trying to help a vulnerable 16-year-old boy find a place to sleep. “In the end, I had to send him to Katoomba,” he said. “That was the only bed available.”

The students are surprised to hear the boy was just like them, from a well-to-do family, but unable to live at home any more due to family breakdown.

At 3pm The Station Ltd closes its doors, and Ralph wonders what happens to its clients then. Nobody really knows.

We leave the Station Ltd and meet well known character Chris and his pet rat, Lucy. Chris became a momentary media star in April when Lucy went missing, feared stolen. It turned out to be a misunderstanding and there was widespread coverage when the pair were reunited.

Chris, like Eddie, sells The Big Issue and has received visits from Ralph’s teen groups for years. He takes great pleasure in putting Lucy on the students’ heads and asks after a woman from Broken Bay Diocese who took him for a coffee once on one of Ralph’s previous visits.

I get the impression loneliness is Chris’s demon, and the cash and donations he receives from Ralph are less important than the company.

Social legacy

Next we head to what could be called the ‘epicentre’ of homelessness in Sydney, Tom Uren Square in Woolloomooloo.

Hundreds of homeless people regularly sleep under the train viaduct here, and flock to the service provided by Baptist Care Hope Street, the Matthew Talbot Hostel and St Vincent de Paul Darlinghurst.

The Baptist Church is basically a garage and, Ralph said, “you can see Jesus” in the work of its quietly spoken Pastor, Ken, who dedicates his life to giving dignity to the homeless people who gather there, despite regular violence and visits from drug dealers. Pastor Ken holds funerals for those who die on his doorstep. He quietly tells the students to avoid drugs and alcohol, because of what he’s seen.

As we walk around, a man sitting on the kerb asks us if we’ve come to “see the freak show”. Ralph stops and tells the man his own story, how his father was made homeless at age nine and became a street kid in Paddington, how he was an alcoholic and a founding member of AA in Australia.

His father used to take comics to the patients at Parramatta mental asylum, was a committed trade unionist and dedicated Catholic. It is because of his father that Ralph is still doing what he does after more than 30 years.

The man seems satisfied, and we take a tour through the public housing of Woolloomooloo. Ralph proudly explains that Tom Uren was a Labor politician who saved Woolloomooloo from developers’ wrecking balls in the 70s, in the same way activist Jack Mundey and his green bans saved The Rocks precinct.

Ralph’s father was a union foreman at OPSM in the 1940s and Ralph was an IEU member for almost 30 years until his retirement.

Once again, the area is under threat from developers. “They want to move the public housing and homeless people out and cash in. But this is their home, they’ve been here for years.”

We finish our tour at the tranquil St Canice’s Church in Elizabeth Bay, where Ralph urged the students to “just listen to the people”.

What have the students made of the day? At St Canice’s we sit down and Ralph says it’s time to reflect.

One student says Eddie reminded him of his uncle, a nice old bloke with lots of advice to offer.

“Just a small thing can happen that sees them in this situation, on the streets,” the student said.

Another student said the day had helped him see the humanity in homeless people.

“I don’t think I’ll just walk past, not noticing them anymore,” he said.

Yet another said: “I’ve learnt how they are just like us. They lose their jobs, can’t pay rent, it can happen so easily.”

And another: “It’s made me notice how many people in the city were ignoring them and not wanting to interact.”

Still another was amazed at how the homeless people we’d met were able to keep their spirits up, even though they had nothing.

The day is a remarkable tribute to the resolve of the human spirit, both in those who are willing to help, and those who find hope in the direst of circumstances.