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Tragedy on our streets

By Brendan Nottle

Thursday, January 20 was going along like any other until I received a phone call from St Vincent’s Hospital ICU. The “Can you please get here ASAP” call is always ominous.  

As I raced out the office door, I stumbled upon Steve*. I was annoyed that he had his shirt off and was curled up in a ball. “What will the neighbours think?” I was thinking to myself. I crouched down and saw that Steve was in bad shape. His jaw and eye socket were severely swollen and bruised. They both appeared to be fractured. He had been involved in an altercation on Elizabeth St that morning. With some hesitancy, Steve agreed to allow me to drive him to hospital. 

Steve still remains there today. I then went to the ICU. I was briefed outside ICU about what had happened and I was asked to wait for a doctor who would take me inside. I was told that Alex*, who had just celebrated his 28th birthday a few days earlier, had been found unconscious in a laneway in the city. This news hit me hard. 

As I sat on my own outside ICU, I recalled finding Alex sleeping rough out the back of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Alex was nine years old at the time. We did everything we could to get Alex the help he desperately needed. However, life for Alex at home was chaotic. A few months after I met Alex, his father was killed in a car accident. We arranged for Alex to be cared for at a Salvation Army Centre in Launceston for four months. It was our way of trying to get Alex away from the craziness that was unfolding on the streets of the city at that time. 

While we were waiting for the final approvals to be issued, Alex appeared at The Salvo’s Café at Bourke St. At the age of 10, Alex and two of his young friends witnessed their 13-year-old friend, Georgia*, fall three floors to her death at an abandoned building in the city. We used this tragedy to sharpen our response to young vulnerable people who hung out in the city. With the support of the then CEO of AXA Insurance and the current CEO of Telstra, Andy Penn, we developed a double-decker bus that was designed to take our services to young people in need rather than waiting for them to come to us. Alex became a key user and advocate of and for this service. 

We were finally able to get Alex to Tasmania, beautifully supported by our staff and volunteers. In the meantime, arrangements were made for Alex to live with a new foster family. Alex became involved with his local football and cricket club and was really starting to enjoy life. Tragically, his foster father died of cancer. A few years ago, Alex’s birth mum died at the age of 47. Tragedy always seemed to follow Alex.

As I sat and pondered the loss of yet another friend, my phone rang. It was one of the St Vincent’s Hospital nurses calling. She is one of two nurses who are based at The Salvo’s at Bourke St. Her and her colleague do amazing work on a daily basis. The phone call started with, “Brendan, I have some terrible news.” My response was, “I already know. I’m at St Vincent’s now waiting to see Alex.” “Alex?” she replied. “What has happened?” she then said, “I’m calling about Arnold*.” 

Arnold was found dead in the city on Thursday morning. Arnold was aged in his early 50s and was one of the real characters who attended our services at The Salvo’s at Bourke St. Arnold had many friends both on the street and at services across the city and inner city. The loss of Alex and Arnold on the same day in completely unrelated circumstances was and is devastating for so many who struggle simply to survive on a daily basis.

The response from me is what do we do to fully respect and honour the memory of Alex and Arnold?

I think the one thing that is consistently missing from our city is a service that is mobile, operates at all hours of the day and night and is truly multi-disciplinary. Mental health, addiction and health services and housing services all need to be rolled into one mobile response that is designed to have time to listen and respond, with the needs of the individual at the heart of that response. Often trust has been breached, and it takes time to re-establish trust with a cohort that is incredibly difficult to reach. 

But if we are serious as a community, in our belief that all lives are equal and every single person counts, then we will do our utmost, no matter what the cost, to ensure that no-one is ever left behind.

*These names have been changed to protect privacy

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