Indigenous affairs

Street smarts

Sam sits near the corner of Murray and William streets in the Perth CBD.

He abandoned his surname almost a decade ago due to a bad relationship with his father, and never uses or mentions it.

“My old man used to drink a fair bit,” he says.

“He wasn’t a very nice person when he drank.

“I decided years ago I didn’t want anything to do with him, so now I’m Sam, just Sam.”

He adds that’s never really been a problem for him, as most people don’t want to know his name.

He clutches a cup of half-frozen Coke he bought from the nearby Hungry Jack’s.

Occasionally a glob drips from his mouth into the ragged mess of his beard.

A large, grey duffle bag sits to his left.

He mumbles to himself as his eyes dart around, probing the bustling streetscape.

He places the almost-finished drink down in front of him.

Sam sketches outside Hungry Jack's

Sam sketches outside Hungry Jack’s.

From the top of his bag he produces a journal and a well-worn stub of a pencil. He licks the tip of his thumb and flicks to a clean page where he begins to draw.

“I’ve always loved to draw and paint,” Sam says.

“It makes me feel better.”

Sam is a far cry from the stereotype of a homeless person.

For starters, he doesn’t beg.

Instead, he sits and draws or writes. Sometimes a passer-by interested in one of Sam’s creations chips in with a coin or two.

“Some people walk by and don’t have any intention to stop or give me money and that’s okay,” he says.

“Every now and then someone will ask me what I’m doing and when I tell them they’ll suddenly reach into their pocket.

“I guess they like knowing I’m not desperate.”

About 5pm, Sam gathers his things and leaves the inner city.

He walks down to St Georges Terrace, the most expensive stretch of real estate in resource-rich Western Australia. He crosses the busy thoroughfare and descends down the steep side of the ridge on which the Terrace sits. Reaching the dead-flat Esplanade below, he looks around for somewhere to sleep before the sun sets.

Not long after, on platform seven of the Perth Train Station, a man on a mobile phone receives an earful from his girlfriend or spouse for being late to dinner.

A woman curses under her breath as she rummages through work-related emails on her iPad.

The train to Fremantle arrives and its doors slide open.

Almost an hour later as the train pulls into its southern terminus, the autumn sun is not long set behind the big red cranes at Fremantle wharf, leaving an orange glow on the clouds.

Dr Cooper looks out over the park

Dr Cooper looks out over the park.

Directly across the road from Fremantle Station, at Pioneer Park, street doctor Mark Cooper stands beside the white Freo Street Doctor van rubbing warmth into his uncovered arms.

The stiff breeze, colloquially known as the Fremantle Doctor, moans as it comes in off the Indian Ocean, sending a chill through anyone naive enough not to bring a jumper.

This is a reminder of what it’s like most cool nights for residents of the park.

“The unique thing about homelessness is it can affect anyone, regardless of where you are in life,” Dr Cooper says.

“The economic climate we’re in now is very unstable.

“People can be quite functional, living a nice life with a well-paid job.

“But before they know it they can’t pay their mortgage, end up losing their home, their job and eventually end up on the streets.

“It’s a snowball effect.”

At 10 minutes past seven the squeaky door to the doctor’s van is pushed open.

A second street doctor, Carmen Quadros, steps down from the van, removing tight latex gloves from her small hands.

She waves goodbye to her final patient for the night as the street doctor service completes another shift.

Soon after, the din of an argument between two of the park’s women turns violent just metres from the street doctors’ office.

Carmen Quadros

Dr Quadros

“There aren’t actually as many fights as you’d think,” Dr Quadros says.

“I’d say 49 out of 50 nights here are fantastic.

“If there ever is a problem, we’ll tell [the clients] to take it elsewhere.

“They respect us, and respect what we do, so they listen.”

An elderly man, Fred Fossolmead, takes a seat on a green plastic chair outside the mobile doctor’s office.

He’s hunched over, much of his weight resting atop his cane.

Proud to be a Nyoongar man, he wears the colours of the Aboriginal flag wrapped around his black hat.

He says he has lived on the streets of Fremantle for almost 10 years, routinely sleeping in Pioneer Park.

Although a skilled person, he says that once you don’t have a home it’s incredibly difficult getting any sort of work or housing.

“I served in the Vietnam War for this country,” Mr Fossolmead says.

“I can talk and I can write.

“I’m no fool.

“People just don’t know what it’s like – once you’re out here there’s no going back.”

Fred Fossolmead fough in Vietnam.

Mr Fossolmead served in Vietnam.

Mr Fossolmead says his people have lived in Perth for 40,000 years yet he often receives abuse from passers-by.

“People spit on me and call me horrible things,” he says.

“I don’t care if you have no home or if you’re in a fancy suit, respect is respect.

“If you don’t understand that you won’t go far in life.”

Dr Cooper stands like a statue, staring at the cars passing slowly over a speed bump on the corner of historic Phillimore Street.

He is joined by Neville Bartlett, who is responsible for making sure all patients have filled in the necessary forms before seeing the doctors.

Mr Bartlett has worked with the Fremantle Street Doctor service since May, 2002.

Also a Nyoongar man, he is seen as an authoritative voice and is highly respected by the local Indigenous community.

The wind now hurtles past, causing goose bumps to rise on his uncovered forearms.

He says that many homeless people have “street smarts” but most of them lack literacy skills.

“They haven’t engaged in what we would call traditional schooling: primary, secondary, or tertiary,” he says.

“This can be evidenced just by observing people, especially when they’re filling in forms.”

Early next evening, back in the Perth CBD, Sam sits cross-legged on the concrete pavement in front of the route 16 bus shelter.

Unperturbed by the office workers rushing to their connecting commute, he’s finishing up a sketch of the sun setting behind Wesley Church.

“I learned how to paint from my grandmother,” he says.

“She taught me about Nyoongar culture and our traditions.

“I never really liked school.

“I stopped going when I was about 14.

“I just thought there was better things I could be doing.”

His eyes stay glued to the page.

“The teachers just stopped caring after a while anyway,” he says.

“I was illiterate for a long time, and the only reason I learned how to read was from someone sitting with me on the streets and teaching me.

“If it wasn’t for that person I probably would have never learned.”

Mr Bartlett and Dr Cooper at Pioneer Park.

Mr Bartlett and Dr Cooper

Six days later, Dr Cooper is once again at his post in Pioneer Park, leaning with his arms crossed against the cool metal of the Street Doctor van.

The clock-face of the Fremantle Train Station shows a quarter to seven.

The lush grass, hydrated by iron-rich bore water which over the years has stained the base of the park’s Canary Island date palms a rusty brown, dries imperceptibly as the Fremantle Doctor whistles through its blades.

Tonight the conversation takes place inside the warmer confines of the van.

“For a lot of homeless people, developing their skills and education is secondary,” Dr Cooper says.

“They’re looking for their essential needs to be met.

“They want to be safe.

“They want to be fed and they want a roof over their head.

“Until the basic but essential needs are met, [homeless people] won’t even consider these secondary needs.”

Photography: Sebastian Neuweiler

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