Sydney, March 22, 2015: You open the gate and walk into the grounds of St Luke’s Anglican Church in Enmore (an inner Sydney suburb) and you come across Sunny and his daughter, Sonya, sitting on the ground.
Sunny has written notes on cardboard inviting you to take a drawing, sit down and chat, make a donation.
You might sit and chat to Sunny or you might decide to wander into the anteroom of the church hall and you notice someone asleep on a bench with their back to you.
This is Emily.
As you wander further in, you notice another person standing and declaiming to the crowd gathered around them.
This is Jockey.
But this is just the prelude, the real action occurs within the hall, the doors of which you are invited to enter.
Nicky and Shakespeare
The play follows the life of a group of homeless people living in the ‘Cross’ their interactions with each other and with Sista Jo who runs the soup kitchen.
Sydney’s Kings Cross is a tourist attraction, red light and club district. Many people first arriving in Sydney, tended to arrive at Kings Cross.
What comes through very clearly, in the play, is their individual stories and the reasons that they ended up on the streets.
Jockey has a degree.
She worked three casual jobs while she was studying, had an internship (undpaid work experience) when she finished, but didn’t manage to get a paid job in her area of expertise – journalism.
Now, she finds that she is too old for some jobs, over-qualified for others.
Her family is in the country and the city is an expensive place without regular work.
Sista Jo and Nicky Sista Jo and Shakespeare
Nicky was sexually abused as a child and ran away from home.
She didn’t finish High School and works as a prostitute in order to pay for her heroin habit.
She would dearly love to go back to High School.
And she tries.
She really does, but the play shows how difficult it is, even with the best of intentions to get out of a situation of homelessness from such a low point.
Even with social welfare life is hard, add to that the fact that you live in a capital city like Sydney and show that the different forms of social welfare, Youth Allowance, Newstart, do not cover the cost of rent, meaning that you need to couch surf, live in a car or sleep rough.
Shakespeare – named for his love of the bard spends his nights on trains or on station platforms.
The reality of how to deal with the cold – stuff your jumper with newspaper and sleep on a double layer of cardboard is just one of the pieces of advice doled out by the young people to each other.
The play also shows the emotional cost of helping homeless people.
Sista Jo finds herself at crisis point, just one too many times of dealing with hurt people damaging themselves, each other and her and yet in spite of that she soldiers on because she believes in them, understands them and sees each of their individual stories and hopes.
In spite of its serious and in some ways harrowing topic, the play is also filled with love, and light and fun through the characters energy, singing, dancing and music.
The characters interact with each other and the audience.
Audience members are invited to take up parts in the play.
And they are offered food from Sista Jo’s soup kitchen.
The Kinetic Energy Theatre Company takes this play into schools so the facts and figures are given in a way that allows the information to be part of the play without being forced or didactic. At one point the young people are discussing how much money a household is worth and they use each other to form a graph to show that information visually while making it seem a very natural thing to do.
I found Emily to be the most intriguing character, so beautiful and fey.
She lost a baby but her continued connection to that baby brings colour and joy into the play.
Does the play reflect the reality of homelessness in Sydney?
It certainly highlights some aspects.
Next time you are on a train in Sydney look out of the window between Central and Town Hall stations as you ride past Belmore Park and you will notice the tents along the side of the fence and the belongings clustered in the bushes.
On the street corners for two blocks around the Queen Victoria Building and Town Hall station you will not fail to see the homeless men who have staked out a corner with their cardboard signs asking for money, telling you a bit about themselves and asking God to bless you for your kindness.
Some will have a dog with them.
A number of these men have been there for years, others are newcomers.
The McDonald’s on George St, past Town Hall is the haunt for young homeless people.
But you will also see the man on the corner of York and Market Streets, selling his copy of the Big Issue, the magazine sold by homeless and marginalised people in order to make ends meet.
And in your own suburb you are sure to have seen someone who is homeless, you may even know them.