The Smell of Poverty

A teddy-bear I rode past, lost on the footpath.

This story is from my experience working on the ‘Soup Van’ in Melbourne in 1999. It’s what it was like, though I’ve fictionalised the people. It was a very real series of Sunday nights during 1999 and gave me a lot of insight about circumstances, choices and what the difference is.

There’s a commercial kitchen at the back of the hall I’m heading to. It’s managed by the local council. Previously owned by some lodge or business association. It also holds the senior citizens meetings.

Tim told me. He invited me along and gave me details about the venue, the people, and the situation. I haven’t been sure. It all sounded a bit of a stretch to me. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it.

I’ve been adrift and looking for something to take the edge off the days staring at the walls. Circumstances have changed, people have left and it’s empty.

Now I’m standing in the rear car park, looking at the kitchen entrance. It’s a bit chilly, my breath fogs a bit and everywhere is damp from the on and off rain.

The car park can hold about eight cars, though two of the parks are currently occupied by a large white van sitting in their centre.

I haven’t come by car. I’ve hiked on over from the nearest train station. Through the damp suburban streets, thick jacket and heavy boots keeping me warm. Tim said we’ll be outside a bit.

The kitchen door is open, but the screen door is latched. I’ve moved to open it and it hasn’t budged, so I peer in to see if I can get someone’s attention.

I can see some people inside working round a large table in the centre of the kitchen. It fills the space with other benches, sinks and cooking ranges around the walls.

The people inside look pretty benign. All cardigans and goodness. Volunteers. Casual home clothes. Tim says the first part of the night is all camaraderie and social. Later is where you need your wits.

Am I overdressed? Mmmmmm…no I don’t think so. I think I’d dress like this if I was going out anywhere in the dark or the damp.

There were no forms to fill out. Tim just said, “Hey do you want to come along? You’d be really helpful.” I accepted because it was him. I’m not in a good place at the moment. Three weeks ago, I got attacked by a nutcase trying to kill me and I’m trying to go with the flow.

I want to get out in the world and not let that experience stop me.

I take a few seconds more to judge books by their covers and I gently rap on the screen door to get someone’s attention. It’s not a convincing noise. The door is a little loose, so it absorbs my rap and converts it into the weaker sound of the screen frame rattling rhythmically against the housing.

“Hello”, I sound off to give it some help.

An older lady looks up from the near end of the table comes over to the door. I’ve got the room’s attention.

“Oh’ you’re Tim’s friend.”, she says, working it out. “Sometimes we get customers coming to the back door, so we have to keep it latched for safety. Otherwise, they’d be right in here with us. Come on in.”

She flicks the small latch and I step back to let her push the door outwards.

The smell that hits me is bread and lots of it. Laid out across the table. A big production line from six green garbage bags, through the construction phase and over to a number of wicker baskets. The baskets only contain a few of the rolls and sandwiches yet, as it is early.

Later I will know that the hall where the crew works has a storage room with a fridge loaded with gifts. These are leftover or just before date food from companies. There is tea, instant coffee, pressed ham, catering packs of cheese slices, tins of tuna, spreads, bottles of cordial concentrate, sugar, margarine and sometimes specials like drink packs or biscuits.

For now, on one of the wall benches, a lady has a big catering loaf of ham that she’s slicing. The slicing wheel turns, and the slices fall out the other side to be transferred to the table for construction.

“I’m Sue.” the lady who has let me in says.

Tim has told me Sue’s story. She used to be a Nun, left, got married and then widowed. I think she’s about sixty or so. He said she’s tough out on the street, though she faces it with a good heart. His words make me ponder, though we’ve just met, so I’ll have to see for myself.

Sue gestures in turn to the people around the table, “This is Gillian, this is Raywyn”, motioning to the lady who has just turned from her slicing duties, “and Steven”, she says motioning at a young man furthest from me.

I nod to each one in turn and introduce myself, though nobody stops working. They’re on a schedule.

“Of course, you know Tim”, she says as he comes out of the side room carrying an extremely large metal stock pot. It’s about half a metre tall with two handles. He puts it down on the bench next to an eight-burner range and comes over to shake my hand.

“Hey mate, how’s it going?”, offering him the standard greeting.

“Pretty good.”, Tim gives back.

“Why don’t you give Tim a hand and then you can come back and help us with the sandwiches”, Sue says. It seems like a plan, so Tim and I head over to the range.

“Did you finish that catalogue shoot for the bakery?”, I ask Tim to catch up.

“Yeah. It took a long time. We had to get Deb in to do the food styling. Took us ages to fix the meat falling out of the wedge in the pie”, he answered.

“Really?”, I ask.

“Yeah, finally Deb got it looking great and then sprayed it with a fine mist of spray glue, so we could get the perfect shot. Looks great on the proof sheet. After that, the client wanted beads of water on the icing of the doughnuts to indicate ‘freshness’ and she has another spray for that. She sprays that and then water from another bottle and ‘et voila’. Perfectly beaded water drops. You can see the same effect on those soda can ads.”, Tim explained.

“Mate sorry to hear. I thought with all that bakery gear you’d be in pies and doughnuts for a month.”, I said.

“No such luck. After the shoot, it’s all ‘cactus’. Totally inedible.”, he said with a look of bemused resignation. “Still, it’s a gig right!” With that exclamation he laughed, and I found it too hard not to join in.

“Hey, I went on a date with a girl I met at church”, says Tim.

Tim always talks about finding a girlfriend. A lot. Though in the six years that I have known him, he hasn’t even talked about a date he has actually been on. Until now.

“What’s her name?”, I enquire.

“Carla.” he said, “I was helping her set up for a function the youth group was running. I didn’t really have to ask her out. We’d been spending a lot of time together at church. We ended up having meals together and after a couple of weeks, I think we’re together.”

I see how it is, in a real though grey area of unfolding probabilities. I think that’s how it should be. When things are real, they’re alive like Schrodinger’s Cat leaping out of the box for a handful of ‘Catbix’.

Tim’s always upbeat. He’s an advertising photographer and geek, with a passion for 80s music, even though it’s 1999. His music collection is shoulder padded and big haired. He isn’t. Just a jeans and t-shirt guy from the suburbs. Intensely religious.

“Good for you man.”, I say “What are you doing?”

“I’m making the soup. You can give me a hand if you want.”, he says, waving a gesture across the materials needed.

I don’t see any ingredients I’m expecting, like onions, carrots, and potatoes to start with. I don’t know what soup he’s going to make.

I’m stumped so I ask, “What ingredients do we need?”

“Let’s start with the water.”, he says, “See this large stock pot. Fill that two thirds full of water and place it on the burner. I’ll get the soup.”

He’ll get the soup? OK. The other side of the room has two commercial size sinks and I place the half metre high stock pot just under the tap that is deep enough for the purpose. I turn the water on full and start filling it to two thirds.

As I do this, Tim’s friend Natalie arrives, says her hellos, and makes a beeline for me. We have history. Not romantic. Tim history. We’ve met up at three of his 80s parties and it’s obvious we see the earth differently.

We have chemistry. The only problem I think it’s sulphur and oxygen and at the end, everything stinks.

The water’s running into the pot and she talks over the noise of it. “Hi. I told Tim that I didn’t think you’d come tonight. I didn’t think it would be your thing.”

“Well, the night’s still young.”, I reply

“Still Mr. Funny then?”, she said, looking bemused.

Natalie is a third-year law student and it could be the study that’s making her very serious. Though it’s something else as well.

“We have to talk about the other night,” she says.

I know exactly what she’s talking about. The other night at Tim’s 80s party, we were in a mildly heated discussion about some political issue. In the middle of our discussion, she leant forward and kissed me, snaking one arm around my shoulders.

It was a completely ninja move. Taken by surprise, I had just let it happen. Not much more of the party unfolded before, we’d ended up back at my apartment.

She’d left very early the next morning and this is the first time I’ve seen her since then.

“Look about the other night. I’m at a critical stage in my studies and I’m not looking for a boyfriend. The other night was fun, though I’m not sure about anything.” she blurts it out like a very rehearsed speech read too fast.

I’m pretty perplexed by it nevertheless, though all I can get out is, “Sure”.

She goes over to the table and starts helping the crew there make sandwiches.

The stock pot is now filled with the two thirds water required, so I call out to Tim, who comes over and it takes both of us to get the stock pot onto the range. We place it over a burner at the front.

It’s gas, so Tim lights it and steps back as the flame whooshes into being. He turns it up as far as it will go and a circular jet of blue flame starts on the underside of the pot.

“What now?”, I ask Tim.

“See that tin over there.”, he points to a tall, lidded canister that looks like it could contain coffee or powdered milk. On the outside it says, “Beef and Vegetable Soup Mix”.

“Oh!”, I say, realising that the soup is going to be ‘packet’.

“Eight heaped scoops with this.”, he says, handing me the scoop he’s plucked off the wall. “Into the water and then mix it up. Once it boils for a bit, then it should be ready to go.”

In Tim’s photography world it’s all glamorous advertising work, where even the steam coming off the bowl is taken at the perfect moment. What was I expecting? Time to make a mental adjustment.

“I’ll keep an eye on this.”, says Tim, “We can jump in and help with the sandwiches.”

Sue has been working at one end cutting the (mostly) rolls in half. Gillian and Natalie are buttering them and Raywyn is keeping a steady supply of ham. They’ve got a system, though Tim and I are able to slot in. We do a bit of everything to construct simple bread rolls with butter, ham, and some with cheese. There are no condiments or salad. There is also a selection of buns and cakes. It’s all made to work to a schedule.

We keep on for about an hour and the baskets are filling up. I wonder where all this bread is coming from, so I ask Sue.

“We get it from the local bakery”, Sue says, “They’re one of the franchises of Tim’s client. They never sell out and they can’t sell it the next day. I drove over at closing time and picked up six garbage bags worth. It’s always roughly about that amount.”

“That must be going on all over the city?”, I think out loud, “Think of all that food just going into landfill.”

“We just have to do what we can do.”, lamented Sue and we all went back to making sandwiches.

We talk as we work. I find out that Gillian is a stay-at-home mother of two and Raywyn works in an office in town as an Administrative Assistant. Steven is an apprentice mechanic. Everything is punctuated by the production line.

Once we get near having every basket full, they are each covered with a tea towel to keep them fresh.

An urn contains coffee and another boiling water, and these are carefully poured into two sides of a weird metal contraption with two distinct sections. It can dispense tea from one side and coffee from the other.

The smell of the soup starts to waft through the kitchen. The soup is ready, and Tim uses a large ladle and funnel filling 18 large vacuum flasks.

It’s been almost two hours since I arrived at seven. It’s dark outside and there’s some light rain I can see, from the falling droplets illuminated in the outside light.

“Excuse me”, comes a voice from the other side of the screen. A person outside the door half shaded in the night. “May I please have some soup?”

“Sure mate.”, Tim says as he separates a paper cup from the stack he has prepared.

Grabbing one of the bun flasks he decants some soup into the cup and grabs one of the sandwiches out of the basket. “Here you go mate.”, he says, opening the screen and handing the items to the man standing there.

“Thanks.”, the man says and starts to walk away, already taking a bite of his sandwich and then sipping the soup.

There are a couple of other people out there as well, so the act is repeated.

It’s getting time to go out and in the last 2 hours the crew have prepared:
Sue goes and opens up the back of the van. She is also designated driver, so she has the keys.

  • 14 baskets of sandwiches
  • 6 baskets of buttered cakes
  • Cordial for 200 people
  • Soup for 200 people
  • The Tea and Coffee urn
  • Sugar, cups, and stirrers

She opens it up and I can see that the storage area has been modified. I help Steven with the strange rectangular double urn. It’s full and heavy. It has a special place where it sits snugly in the angle iron rack now built into the van. There’s a system here in operation.

I help carry various items to pack the van. The rain is still drizzling, so we’re as quick as we can be. I’m carrying some things with Natalie. She doesn’t bring anything else up. She’s going to make a great lawyer.

This is the crew of ‘Soup Vanners’ for Sunday night. They go out and deliver soup, sandwiches, cordial, tea, and coffee to people. They are all volunteers. They all have their reasons for doing it.

We’re packed and ready to go. Everybody piles in the van with Sue in the driver’s seat. Steven gets in the passenger seat next to Sue. Everyone else is on two facing bench seats accessible from a sliding door on the side. Some of the needed items are on the floor between us, overflowing from the modified carry area. There are also some donated blankets to hand out.

The rain is picking up a little bit and as we turn out of the suburban street onto the main road, city lights blink and flash. A thin drip of water seeps in between the seal of the door.

The van smells of coffee, tea, bread, soup, though mostly bread, everything else being pretty much sealed up. The radio’s on. It’s tuned to a top 40 station and the latest hits blare out. The ‘Soup Vanners’ all gossip and chat about their week and the one to come. Sunday night and tomorrow is another working week.

The traffic noise will be pretty light around the first stops. It will get heavier as we move on to the centre of the city. Sue has described the route to everyone, and we have a list of the stops we need to make. This is looked after by Steven, taped to the glove compartment.

The van has some limited air conditioning, though opening and closing the door during the night will give that a run for its money.

If I wasn’t here right now, I would be sitting at home, wondering what I should do with my time. My mind right now is occupied with both the social situation and the job at hand.

As everyone talks, I learn that this is only one crew of seven that takes this van out every night of the week. We are the Sunday crew. Every night the same process is repeated. It’s run on almost no money, so most of the gear is donated, and somewhat battered from its former glory.

Sue gives ‘the talk’ before the first stop, for the benefit of newcomers. In this case, that’s me. “We’ll go in pairs. Remember to wash your hands every time you come back to the van. Not everyone’s hygiene is being kept up. Keep an eye out for each other and let me know of any issues as soon as you can.”

Sue obviously respects the people she’s trying to help, otherwise she wouldn’t be doing it. She’s a pragmatist and realises that there can also be risks. The knowledge of the places most in need is in people like Sue and in the organisation.

Gillian and Raywyn sing along to the various top 40 tunes on the radio, in amongst talking. Steve sits tensely in the passenger seat. Tim is going on about his new girlfriend Carla to Natalie. I join in the conversation every so often, though mostly I curiously watch the streets go by through the lights and the drops of rain on the windows.

Our first stop is some flats on the edge of the city. I notice the talking mostly dies down as everyone gets ready for action.

We’re in the north of the city in a reasonably well to do suburb. Across the road is a very upmarket housing estate. Although this looks like a regular block of flats the gardens and a mattress left upright against a fence hint at a different story.

The avenue along the fence goes back a fair way and into the darkness. I estimate that there are about 14–15 separate apartments in this block, all single stories. There is a lot of foliage, and the brickwork is that grey rendered style, with moss that makes everything look damp, especially in the light drizzle.

“There’s a guy here, living in a caravan at the back of the lane,” Sue lets us know, “We’ve had reports that he abuses the soup van crews most nights, so just knock on the door and leave something for him outside.”

I ask Sue, “Does that happen much?”

“It varies, most people don’t have any reaction. We’re just part of the experience. Some people are grateful, and some are abusive. It doesn’t necessarily make any sense. Except to say that many people are in dire situations, there are those with mental problems and those on something. We’re meeting people whose lives are not really on track.” and she leaves it at that.

I’m paired up with Raywyn and we both grab flasks of soup (with paper cups) and a basket of sandwiches, which I carry. She gives me a ‘Here we go’ smile and we go into the lane. The other ‘Soup Vanners’ pair up, Tim and Natalie, Gillian and Steve with gear and we split up. Sue stays with the van.

Raywyn and I get to our first door. She raps on it and yells, “Van!”. With the soup van going out every night, the longer-term residents must know what to expect.

“Come in”, we hear, so I must open the door myself. This I do slowly, as I am a bit nervous about the situation.

We’re greeted by the sight of 5 guys sitting on run down sofas and chairs around a low table containing several bottles and flagons. There’s even a cask. They are all pretty obviously drunk, though they seem to have a cheery demeanour. In a couple of places, I notice a half-devoured sandwich from the previous night.

“Any sandwiches or soup?”, says Gillian.

One of the blokes answers, “All round please”.

He has a very British voice. So British that he could once upon a time have been the regimental Sergeant Major fallen on hard times. His ability and manners through his inebriation are impressive.

Gillian dispenses sandwiches and I pour soup into plastic cups from the flask slung over my shoulder. I pour it a centimetre or so below the rim. It’s hot, though not enough to burn anyone.

We get some thanks all round and they laugh as we close the door and leave them to their meal.

It goes like that the next 4 times, with varying people mostly just opening the door a little bit and getting some soup and sandwiches.

We arrive at the grey caravan up on bricks at the same time as Tim and Natalie. Tim knocks on the door and before he can say anything a voice says, “just leave it outside thanks”. We leave a buttered iced bun, two sandwiches and a cup of soup.

Tim says, “Must have had his medication”, and leaves it at that.

We get back to the van and Sue asks us for a count of whom we think we’ve seen. She has a log book, numbers of people, what we gave out and any issues.

We get back in the van and move on to the next place.

The next stop is a hostel run by a major charity organisation. It’s very well appointed in an eighties kind of way. It’s built on two levels and there would be about 40 apartments including a women’s section.

I pair up with Raywyn again. The front door to the complex is unlocked and again our three teams carry flasks of soup over our shoulders and baskets of sandwiches. We’ve got a basket each this time as there are more doors to get round.

It is a regular call of “Soup Van” and some doors open and some don’t.

At one a woman answers. I take a step backwards, out of reflex, as the smell of the room inside is very strong. It’s a mix of a lot of things and I don’t want to try and identify them. Her dress is thin and dirty, with the visible dirt starting an arm’s length from her waist and getting darker towards the hem. She looks forlorn.

On the bed which fills the room is a man with his leg up on the bed and one leg on the floor. They are lost in this situation. We feed them some soup and sandwiches.

As we go round, some people do want to talk to us and we get thanks, anger, and everything in between.

Getting outside the front door, a young guy is coming towards me and gets a bit too close for my liking. He pushes his arm out and says, “Hey mate, are you guys able to dispose of these?” He is holding two syringes with the caps missing, with the pointy ends towards my face.

“Nah sorry, this is just the soup van mate.”, we don’t do that. Tim comes over and it gives me a bit of back up. I don’t think the guy is aggressive, though it’s always good to make sure.

We move on to the next place.

This one is also just outside the city and is a bit dingier than the last one.

We pair up again and do our thing dispensing soup and sandwiches.

A thirtyish Aboriginal man comes to the door. He introduces himself as Ken and he lives with Kate who is his girlfriend. There is a smell of something, I remember from visiting friends backstage at their shows.

Ken is a good talker; pretty easy-going guy and we talk for a bit.

“Hey whaddya reckon about this?”, he says, showing me his right forearm. There is a kind of semi sealed gash along the length of it. Scabbed over and yellowy and the arm is swollen and angry looking.

“That looks a bit nasty mate. I think you should go to a doctor. Right away.”, I’m pretty worried seeing the state of his arm.

“Should be alright”, he says way too casually.

I ask carefully, “How did you do that mate?” and Ken answered, “Well, you know?”. At that moment I realise it is self-inflicted.

“Come outside with us Ken”, says Raywyn “and we’ll see if Sue can sort something out.” I’m not sure how Sue can help, though I go with Raywyn’s suggestion.

When we get Ken outside, Sue does have it in hand.

“We’ll change our schedule around. We normally stop off at the hospital so that we can wash our hands midway and go to the toilet as a rest stop. We’ll go there right now and take Ken with us.”

It happens. We get in the van, and we bundle Ken in with us. It’s a big call. We don’t really know him well and anything could happen. That arm looks awful though.

When we get to the Hospital stop, Sue parks the van in the car park and locks it. We all bundle out and Sue and Tim take Ken to the Emergency Room. I’ve given them the details and where he lives. Sue says we’ll check in on the way back.

After the hospital, we continue to the Town Hall. People congregate around the time they think the soup van will be coming by. We’re a bit later tonight from changing our run to take Ken to the hospital.

“You guys are a bit late.”, one guy says as we pull up. Sue says something to the guy out of the driver side window. I don’t catch it, though the tone is just; oh well.

Raywyn tells me, “A lot of people think that we are paid to do this by the government. Every so often we get someone who tells us off for not doing our ‘job’ properly. We just take it in stride.” I’m getting a good picture of the balance of circumstance and choice. ‘Clients’ and ‘Soup Vanners’

This stop marks a change as we now dispense everything from the back of the van, and this includes tea and coffee from the mobile urn and cordial as well. My role transforms into helper, crowd control and conversationalist. People want to tell me their stuff, so I just listen to it. Some of it is just polite conversation, other parts of it are the wrong end of the stick. It washes over.

There is a sad seagull analogy, where there are some people around the edge, outside of the more aggressive inner circle. I push through that inner circle to make sure that those people get something as well.

I’m asked questions as well. I don’t answer anything of a personal nature or offer to give out contact details. Some of the questions are about social services and we have to let them know that we’re nothing to do with the government or any of those programs. We’re just about the soup.

Gillian tells me, when she was first on the van, a guy found out her address and although it was mild, there was an element of stalking about it. It did freak her out. I can understand wanting to help. There’s a family group here today and you wonder what their story is.

Another guy in the crowd pulls out a mobile phone. Those are only coming into vogue for most businesspeople. Strange that this guy has one. I assume to myself that it’s stolen and then chastise myself for the assumption, even though I still feel it.

The next three hostels follow the same pattern of sandwich, soup, cordial, tea and coffee and buns. There are junkies, kids, drunks, the mentally challenged, the dispossessed, the lonely and the old.

Always, there is that smell of sandwiches and bread. Either in the van or left from previous days in the rooms.

We visit a men’s hostel. No boozing, no noise, clean and quiet with a certain dignity not found in some of the other places. The decorations on the wall are various examples of 1970s Macramé with a genuine patina of dust to let you know they are relics consigned to this facility. Seeing these ‘artworks’ seems to give me a deeper dread than anything else I have seen tonight.

The last four stops are the back of the markets, the apartments in town, the main city street and finally the drug hostel.

At the markets there are people using the overhang outside the closed sheds for shelter. Something makes me believe the apartments in town will be redeveloped and the tenants moved on as soon as the permits come through.

The main city street is usually drug kids who hurl abuse at us and try to mess us about. Usually by trying to get into the van and see if there is anything to steal. They are a terrible living stereotype.

Steven is handing a young Aboriginal man a roll which he takes. Steven is talking to him, and the man suddenly gets very angry. He starts yelling at Steven and then does a strange dance, points at Steven, and says, “You’re fucked now mate!” Steven is shocked so badly that he has to go and sit back in the van for a bit. He’s OK, he just needs a moment.

Finally, we get to our last stop. The drug hostel. It’s twelve midnight and we still have to clean up back at the hall. We have been going since seven.

Sue drives us into the car park, and this is yet another example where she takes charge.

The people from the hostel are all in the car park to greet the soup van and they surge forward like it is a riot. They want to get in first to get soup and sandwiches. They also want to get in the van. They want to get in the van glove box.

Sue has to tell them with a raised voice, “Now everyone will get a turn. Though we need you to keep away from the van and we’ll serve you.” It’s confronting.

We run out of everything. Particularly the cordial is a big winner here. That’s it. No more stuff.

We’re pretty beat, yet we still have to check on some things and clean up. Sue drives us back to the hall and we unpack all the empty baskets, flasks, and containers.

She rings the hospital emergency department, and it takes a few minutes. She enquires about Ken and after a bit more gets some news. After the “Yes, yes, thank you’s” she fills us in.

“They’ve admitted Ken into hospital for observation. They said if his arm was left in that condition, it would have gone gangrenous, and he could have possibly died. I’ll ring someone in the morning and get them to follow up, so he can get home when he’s better. I’ll also have the Monday night ‘Vanners’ let his girlfriend know what’s going on. Now let’s clean up and we can get out of here.”

The clean-up is hard. All the flasks have to be washed and rinsed to remove any trace of soup. The slicing machine, stock pot, mobile urn, knives, and everything else must be pristine and ready for the next day’s van.

The floor is mopped, and all the benches cleaned down with disinfectant and detergent.

Sue updates the logbook with the final numbers, activities, and situations.

Natalie is beside me, “You did well tonight. Would you like me to give you a lift home?”, she says, putting an arm around my shoulder. It’s a caring gesture, as well as something else. Some of what I’m thinking about tonight is clearly written on my face.

“Yes, I’d like that.”, I say, and with that we head out into the car park.


I continued the soup van for another six months, arriving every Sunday and repeating this story. Some nights were exceedingly uneventful, others were confronting or a comedy of errors or everything in between.

Some things I saw were:

  • A group of eight teens living in a room all together, fighting and doing smack.
  • Max, a guy who had two university degrees, tried to cut his own throat and we eventually got him out of the hostels. His neck looked like Doctor Frankenstein had tried to reattach it.
  • A guy came to the door with a carving knife, called us Satan and said that he would cut out our hearts.
  • A young couple, both uni students, that we found more appropriate accommodation for.
  • Sue cleaning up some guys vomit out of his room.
  • Cleaning up some spilled soup out of a hallway with my hands. Yuk.
  • An impromptu stop-off next to a power transfer station, where some guys have set up camp. Tim tries to feed a possum and it doesn’t want a bar of him.

The government changed the food handling laws. They wanted everyone including volunteers to go to a six-week certificate course, before they were allowed to give out food. If they had seen some of the conditions or situations, they might have made an exemption. Not a lot of the volunteers could take the time from life, work, or studies to do it.

The organisation running the van also wanted more school age children on the van. When asked who was responsible for these children in the dangerous situation they might face, they said adults on the van would be.

Both these situations opened up too many issues. I also got a new job. I moved on.

I think the van is still running today, twenty-two years later, though I have no idea under what situation or capacity.

After all this time, and revisiting this experience, there are really two takeouts.

  1. The people we served were a mixture of circumstance and choice. There is a lot to unpack about where you put your efforts when helping. Where the most good can be done and what you think the effect might be. People with bad circumstances are heartbreaking. People with bad choices are annoying. There are combinations of these and it’s not our place to judge, though we can use our judgment to avoid these circumstances and choices for ourselves to the best of our ability.
  2. The smell of poverty to me, is not anything to do with bodies. To me it was always the smell of the bread rolls either fresh or decaying. Thus, the title of this story. I’m glad that I had this experience, did some good, sometimes and learnt some things.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Virgil Reality

Virgil Reality

Data and Analytics Professional, Media Strategist and Creative, Customer Experience Architect and Developer, Secret Trumpeter