Advocacy in the Heart of Melbourne
The first thing David Millar points out to us is the Mont Blanc store across the road from the Verandah Café in Collins Street. “I used to own four pens from there,” he says, as he beckons a waitress over. “The cheapest pen they sell is around six hundred dollars. And it’s made of plastic,” David adds. He likes having that store across the road to remind him of the ostentatious wealth that sits side by side with the disadvantage that riddles Melbourne’s CBD. An hour or so later, he shows us an alley at the back of the Collins Street Baptist Church, only a block or so from Melbourne’s flagship Chanel store, where over a hundred homeless men and women have overdosed on heroin since the 1990s epidemic. “Not so far away as you thought, right?”
But for now we sit, sip coffee and listen to David’s story. And it is truly compelling. Having graduated from University of Melbourne, an alumnus of Newman College, David went on to study postgraduate law; he worked his way up the ranks to a $250 000 salary and a New York penthouse. He cultivated a cocaine addiction to sustain his extravagant and high-pressured lifestyle. “Alcohol let me forget, but coke meant that I could still function relatively well.” And function he did, collecting signs and symbols of his success and status; Rolex wristwatches, extravagant cars and, of course, sumptuous stationery. “People never wear them in their shirt pockets, you know,” he remarks, “but always in their suit pockets, with the engraved handle turned outwards. They want other people to know that they can afford a Mont Blanc pen.”
In 2007, the Global Financial Crisis called for cutbacks in David’s firm. He was one of thousands of Wall Street lawyers and financiers ruined by addiction and dogged by poor performance who met the end of his career swiftly and irreparably. He returned home to Australia, where he spent his savings. He tried to sell his Mont Blanc pens at Cash Converters, without success. He slept rough for several months. He begged on Collins St, the same stretch of the CBD where, that day, we sink our spoons into cappuccinos and people watch. “When it’s raining, and there isn’t enough people traffic, you don’t earn as much begging. You can’t afford cask wine. But you can get methylated spirits, hand-soap and such instead. Mix them up with a bit of orange juice and you still get drunk to oblivion.”
One winter evening, lying in his swag in the Botanical Gardens, he took a kitchen knife he bought from Woolworths and slit his left forearm, from wrist to elbow. Was it not for two female police officers checking the area for a reported intruder, he would not have received First Aid and would probably not be alive today. “I was in hospital for a few weeks, recovering after I lost so much blood,” he sighs, “and then I had to start my life from scratch.”
David’s recovery since has been nothing short of remarkable. He began by tackling his alcoholism with the twelve-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. He initially worked in Legal Aid, but became more and more involved in the movement to lift other homeless and disadvantaged Melburnians out of poverty. He currently works as the corporate and philanthropic engagement director Urban Seed. Since its inception in 1993, Urban Seed, a charity and advocacy group for disadvantaged Melburnians, has sought to plug the welfare system’s gaps and seen scores of homeless transform their lives. For example, the Verandah Café is a social enterprise staffed entirely by homeless and disadvantaged Melburnians. It doesn’t aim to make a profit, but rather to provide work experience, training and employment for those in Urban Seed’s care. He now fronts up to meetings with the high-powered corporate executives he used to rubs shoulders with to share his story. “For some of them, it’s the first time that they realise that the homeless are not lazy, or born into poverty. It scares them that I was once just like them. It’s a not-so-gentle reminder that addiction and homelessness do not discriminate.”
Now we come to talk shop. How can we help? What do we have that Urban Seed needs? A few ideas are thrown around. A college sleep-out to raise awareness about homelessness, a coat run for the upcoming winter campaign, monetary donations… We don’t just want to talk about the issue, we insist. David nods. He understands our passion to do something that has tangible, measurable results. We just want to take home something to prove that we’ve made a difference. But a sleep-out, he warns, is a little tokenistic. We shudder at the word, suddenly ashamed of our privilege.
What he wants from us is far easier than we anticipated. “Don’t underestimate your power as communicators,” he stresses. “Your generation intuitively understands how to build and market businesses, ideas and trends.” David wants us to promote social enterprises, such as the Verandah Café, through social media. He hands out business cards for another initiative called ‘Chic Magnetism Melbourne’, a Humans-Of-New-York-esque Facebook page encouraging disadvantaged youth to capture their experience of the Melbourne CBD by photographing interesting people. (The quirks of this city have been a brilliant addition to the usual banal tidings of my News Feed.)
All of this seems too easy. We want something bigger and better. We want to change the world. He can sense our hunger to do something more. But David’s firm grasp of reality helps temper our idealism. Don’t be afraid to talk about the issue, David reminds us. By encouraging constant and open conversation about disadvantage and addiction, he points out, we can change the way a generation perceives homelessness.
David’s lesson reminds me of a parable I internalised from my Year Seven religion class. It speaks of the power of an idea. A farmer scatters seeds across his acre of land. Some of the seed will fall on stone, and be eaten by crows. Some will land on the dry dirt, and shrivel. But some will find rich soil, and embed themselves. There, they will grow, and produce ripe fruit. We should sow the seeds of compassion and social responsibility as far and wide as possible. Some will reject our ideas, some will ignore them, but some will embrace them wholeheartedly. And their behaviour – be it something as simple as buying a copy of The Big Issue or donating an old coat to a coat drive – will be the fruit of those seeds. That, Jesus once said, is how you turn an idea into reality. And, whether you believe that he’s the Messiah or just a naughty Jewish boy who went off the rails, you can’t argue with his logic.
So, if you can see what I see: a city of affluence and artifice, of Mont Blanc stores and soy lattés, riddled with disadvantage and inequity, then be not afraid. If you have a conscience, a voice and a message, then you have all you need to plant the seed. Now watch it grow.
The Verandah Café and Credo Café are at 174 Collins Street.
Urban Seed offers city walks, volunteering and advocacy opportunities. For more information on how you can be involved as part of the Ormondian Advocacy Group, contact Mim DiNapoli. Otherwise, check out the Urbanseed website (http://www.urbanseed.org).