BEFORE volunteering with the Access Outreach street van, I tried to mentally prepare myself.
I’ve given spare change to people doing it tough, but have never handed meals to the homeless. I had no idea what to expect.
When I pulled in to the charity’s base at Mansfield, Pastor Russell Witham (“Just call me Russell”) was starting to get the van stocked for the night.
It’s a basic and practical set-up. The rear of the van has been modified and has a sturdy shelf with a hot water urn secured in place, while a drawer underneath stocks tea, coffee, hot chocolate and cordial.
Russell said up to 200 people depended on the Access Outreach volunteers for a meal every Thursday night. The charity has two street vans in Townsville and one in Brisbane.
“Each van costs about $10,000 per year to run and we rely on donations to keep them running,” he said.
Inside, I helped prepare chicken and Vegemite sandwiches, made with fresh bread and rolls.
“Funds are tight, but a baker at Palmdale has been supplying us about five times a week for our different services. I’m not sure what we would do without him,” Russell said.
We also loaded hot pies and sausage rolls and sweets into eskies, and then we hit the road. At our first stop in New Farm, about 10 men came out from a small hostel on Merthyr Rd. Some were shy, but a few shared a laugh with Russell and long-time volunteer Sue.
It was a friendly atmosphere, but I knew things would get harder at the Pindari Salvation Army Men’s Hostel in Spring Hill. It provides temporary accommodation for about 100 men for up to three months.
Some of the men have mental health issues, some are addicts and, for others, Pindari is their first stop out of a correctional facility.
As I hopped out of the van, the hostel seemed to loom over the hill. It hit home just how many people need a roof over their heads.
Next door was the wing to Pindari Women’s Hostel. Russell told me not many of the women venture out. “A lot of them have had it pretty tough,” he said.
We served a large crowd of about 70. I still see the face of a young man who was around the same age as my older brother. I wanted to know why he was there, and where was he going next?
Sitting in the van while Russell served one last coffee, volunteer Carol asked me what I was feeling. I honestly couldn’t tell her. I think I felt like an intruder, stealing glimpses into lives I had no idea about. I also felt guilty for driving off and leaving them all behind.
I met quite a few characters at our last stop, outside a hostel on Gregory Tce and witnessed generosity from those who had the least to give. When I held out the last hot pie, two men approached at the same time. One quickly said to me: “Give it to my friend – he is trying to put on a little weight.”
Driving home that night, I felt helpless, overwhelmed and grateful for the experience. And I understood why Russell has continued to help out for 20 years.