Working in tandem with the Street Side Medics service Addi Road is seeing a new kind of customer and many more people in need. The working poor, the unemployed and the homeless moving ever closer together.
Judy has noticed this change in what is going on too. She works as a volunteer for the new Wednesday Night Lights shift at Addi Road Food Pantry.
“I was retired,” she says. “I’ve been a social worker all my life. But I missed it. And I just wanted to be useful to other people, to help. I actually knew about this place from right back when I was a student. So I decided to get involved. I liked what was happening here, it fitted with my values.” .
As luck would have it Judy is now ‘un-retired’. And “back doing social work three days a week”. Being at the Addi Road Food Pantry in Marrickville got her so inspired she could not help herself. But she did not want to quit volunteering. So when the announcement for extended Wednesday opening hours was made Judy raised her hand for the afternoon shift. In winter! So she’s volunteering and working throughout the week.
Every Wednesday the Food Pantry will start business as usual at 12 midday – but stay open till 7pm. Judy had already been noticing the change in who was coming during the day shifts: more and more people who were struggling with either high rents or mortgage pressures. And she has seen, almost instantly, how the later opening hours for the Food Pantry on a Wednesday evening are a big help to those who are working.
When customers in need of low-cost groceries come in and spend $5 or more, they get their choice of fruit and vegetables and bread added on for free. Most people end up with triple or more the value of of what they’d buy at a normal supermarket, a benefit that sees a few people out shopping on this rainy ten degree night in Sydney: a couple of student types occupy the aisles, while a mother with her child and an older man in a work uniform check out the fridges, buying everything from meat to milk to ice creams. What’s available can ebb and flow each week – but the philosophy behind the Addi Road Food Pantry is not handouts and desperate measures, it’s achieving dignity and, wherever possible, items that add to a nutritious diet and some joy in life for those who come here and find a treat along with the basics and staples they need.
Outside free hot meals are also being served while a gas heater draws customers, volunteers and staff alike around it. Addi Road Office Manager Gurwinder Kaur has cooked up chick peas and potato curry with rice. It tastes pretty damned good too, steaming out of stainless steel food carriers on foldout tables. A recipe from her mother back home? Gurwinder rolls her eyes. “I learnt how to make it here, working in hostels and studying. Australia has taught me everything,” she laughs.
Yiana Roumeliotis, Addi Road’s Community Engagemement Officer is serving. She notices a young woman leaving the Food Pantry and calls her over to alert to the free hot meals on offer. Two young women connecting for a moment across a table.
Not far away the Welfare Alliance’s Vivienne Moore is deep in conversation Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce chair Sam Mostyn, who is already Tweeting about what’s happening here: “Now at Addi Road, the wonderful Street Side Medics team providing free medical service for all who need… every Wednesday 6-8pm. Pop along an enjoy a beautiful vegie curry, conversation and free GP consult.”
Street Side Medics have their mobile van all lit up. “No payment, Medicare care or ID needed”. Staffed by GPs and nurses, it operates on a volunteer basis, reliant on people who believe all Australians have a right to decent health care regardless of their circumstances or economic situation. The gas fire and the hot meals, the shopping at the Food Pantry and the Street Side Medics van draws people together in undifferentiated clusters: doctors and patients, Addi Road volunteers and customers shopping… friends, students, workers, people in need.
Inside the Food Pantry it is getting near time to be packing up. Our Addi Road volunteer Judy has had another rewarding night. Her first regular customer under the new Wednesday Night Lights late opening hours thas already made an impact on her over these last few weeks. “It’s this woman who has a job,” Judy says. “I knew as soon as I saw her wearing a uniform. I’ve seen it happening in the day time too in the last six months. We are getting more and more people coming along to shop here who have jobs. But the usual weekday hours for the Pantry from 12-4pm can be difficult for them when they are working. This Wednesday Night Lights thing is showing the change in what is happening in the community, I think. It’s the working poor.”
“She told me, ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you.’” Judy replied that things were tough out there. “Yes they are,” the woman said. “I’m really struggling. I’ve got a job but I’ve been sick. It’s meant lots of extra expenses. This year has been very hard.”
Judy understood instantly that the later opening hours for the Addi Road Food Pantry meant a little less stress in life for the woman, a simple matter of being able to make it there and get some low-budget shopping done inbetween her working commitments. This alone was a triumph in these “very hard” times. Food on her table without having to fight so much to get it there.
The woman has noticed the Street Side Medics service is going to take advantage of it along with her child next week. Judy could relate to the situation and the struggles. Her interest in volunteering and social work dates back to her own upbringing. “I was raised in a single-parent family,” she says. That meant poverty in the time I was raised.”
Judy’s observation has an edge to it, as if to say things did get better for single parents later on – but it’s not that way anymore. Things are going backwards, not forwards. “My mother, bless her, she always volunteered and set a good example,” Judy says. “I must have absorbed it. Her sense of injustice.”
She is not unrealistic about how it is. “It’s not easy with kids. They get embarrassed – or angry at you. But if you can make it through, it’s a great gift for them, you know. They understand a lot about life that people with money can never understand.”
Judy starts putting things away, it’s finally closing time at Addi Road Food Pantry. She’s glad her latest customer can shop here and will be able to take advantage now of Street Side Medics as well. “I really like the people,” Judy says, looking around. “And even though I am back working myself three days a week, like I said, I could not bear to stop coming here. I just could not bear it.”