Josh Serafini at a glance is an average man.
Pass him on the street and you wouldn’t think too much off it. He’s certainly someone you wouldn’t mess with but there is kindness in those eyes. He’s an easy-going bloke for someone whose lived on our streets and he was our guide for the next two hours.
For Homelessness Week 2021, Josh approached Shelter WA to lead a group of strangers on his actual journey while he cycled in and out of homelessness. It would also be a chance to see how local community providers are handling the issues which homelessness creates on the front lines throughout the city.
The start of the tour began with a lesson on personal safety. You are vulnerable and you need to camouflage your situation. “You might have noticed I’m wearing nothing but black,” Josh said. “Black is a neutral colour. There is gang activity, and you don’t want to be wearing the wrong colours. You also don’t want to be seen by either security patrols or the police.”
With that, Josh dropped to the ground and unfurled his sleeping bag he brought with him. “I can get this packed up in thirty seconds,” he said. “You’ll get moved on and you need to be quick. It will happen constantly so being able to quickly pack is essential.”
“You don’t want to be wearing the wrong colours.”
In thirty seconds, he had packed, and we were on our way.
Our first stop was Jewell House. Recently used by the YMCA it now stands unused except for a carpark out front. “This used to be emergency accommodation for the homeless,” Josh said. “These are the sort of things I want you to have a think about, why are these things happening? It is now just a building standing.”
Royal Perth Hospital
Just down the road, we walk to Royal Perth Hospital. It is unusually quiet. As we approach Josh gives a cursory nod to security guards nearby. “I slept here,” he says. Pointing to the ground we wouldn’t have been more than a metre away from the emergency waiting room doors. “They have many intakes of homeless people coming and dwelling in this area and they can’t manage. I went in having suffered a nervous breakdown and it wasn’t enough to get a bed.”
One time Josh snuck in. His aim was to have a shower, but he was found. “They grabbed me from the shower and removed me while naked. This created anger in me at the injustice of it all.”
As we zigzag through the tunnel’s underneath McIver railway station, from the hospital we come to the Tranby Engagement Hub. Run by Uniting WA it is a “safe, supportive environment where people are welcomed exactly as they are”.
It is busy but welcoming. Some of the smokers recognise Josh out front and there’s a quick catch up. We head upstairs to the offices located above the drop-in centre, so we don’t intrude.
“You can get a shower, get some breakfast, and give your feet a rest,” Josh said. “There was support here and they helped me get housed in the 50 Lives 50 Homes project.”
Michael Chester the Head of Service Operation and Gayle Mitchell Practice Lead – Transitioning from Homelessness at Uniting WA spoke about the facility.
“You need to look at things through a trauma informed lens,” he said. “We’ve had incidents here. But we view it from the perspective of the individuals in pain and to understand the lashing out is not necessarily at anyone personally, it is just lashing out from frustration and anger which is often enhanced by drug and alcohol use to cope with the pain and homelessness. I understand where the violence is coming from and being less judgemental about it.”
“They helped get me housed.”
In the last eighteen months staff at Tranby have been purposeful in understanding why people come to the drop-in centre. Rather than it being just a place to sit, stay and eat food, those arriving are actively engaged on their immediate needs.
Although illegal, squatting is often a last resort for those who become homeless. As we walk along Parry Street Josh points out a place he was evicted from and others where he squatted. “You have to be sneaky and try and find somewhere to sleep for the night,” he said. “I used to camp by myself, anywhere there was shelter.”
It was at this point Josh opened up. Perhaps having seen some of these places again it seemed the moment was now. “I’ve had a twenty-five-year consistent on and off with homelessness. In the last nine years I was homeless for four and a half years and I’ve been housed for around for four and a half years.”
Our tour concluded at the Passages Youth Engagement Hub.
Run by Vinnies WA the service understands the “complex interrelationship between trauma exposure, homelessness, mental health, substance misuse and social disadvantage, and is a safe place to seek support”. It supports young people aged 12 to 25 years.
Passages helped Josh on several occasions and Coordinator of the Hub, Roberta O’Connor spoke about the services offered. “We are primarily an engagement hub,” she said. “There is a kitchen, laundry service, toilets, and showers. All staff are youth workers who can refer on to accommodation, mental health or drug and alcohol services. Several visiting services attend such as Homeless Healthcare and Street Law Centre WA.”
A COVID-19 vaccination clinic will visit the service next week.
“There is so much evidence around early intervention. It is so important to work with youth, to meet them as they are and really try to help them change their journey,” Roberta said.
As the tour concluded the Chief Executive Officer of Shelter WA Michelle Mackenzie thanked Josh for his time and for sharing his story. Josh had conceptualised the idea and came to Shelter WA several months before homelessness week began. We are so glad he did.