'They do magic here'

The homeless, the hungry and the lonely in Sydney converge at lunchtime.
St Canice’s Kitchen, which has been operating for 35 years, is their safe place.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED  

By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia  

The G-word (“guests”) is especially significant here at St Canice’s Kitchen at Kings Cross in Sydney. That’s the term Fr David Braithwaite and his team of volunteers use as the collective noun for the people who congregate here for a cooked lunch at St Canice’s Church 

Outside the main entrance to the 19th-century church, a rectangular plaque on the footpath explains that St Canice, a sixth-century Irish monk and missionary, is the patron saint for those threatened by storms. The guests who gather here have all faced their own personal storms, but a few of them were willing to talk about their experiences.  

Anna:   

I don’t want my conversation recorded and I don’t want my picture taken. This place is very special because it offers something unique to people who need it the most – not just a great meal every day, but the kind and caring volunteers who treat all of us in a way that truly matters.   

It’s interesting that you’ve asked me about the increasing number of women who come here. The reason is simple – we come because it’s safe. Davey and Baker (the security men) don’t tolerate any threatening behaviour, and because of that, we know that we can come here in total safety. Some of the women here have experienced serious domestic violence but they know they are safe here. You cannot even begin to imagine how important that is. 

In Dion Moore’s own words: “People here are never treated with contempt or aggression, but there is zero tolerance for any shenanigans. That makes everyone feel safe.” Photo: David McMahon

Dion Moore: 

I’ve been coming here for 10 years, on and off, whenever I’ve needed to. There are no qualifying marks here, no yardsticks that any of us have to measure up to. They don’t have an eligibility criterion. Everyone is welcome here and this place is a great equaliser because people come here from all walks of life.   

In the 10 years I’ve been coming here, I’ve never had a dud feed. The ladies who volunteer to cook in the kitchen here do an amazing job. I’m pretty sure that if I gave them a couple of old tin cans and some old boot leather as ingredients, they would still manage to make a casserole to die for!   

I love the fact that they take the time out of their day to do something both Christian and charitable that doesn’t involve us having to do anything spiritual. People could be of any faith and still be welcome here. There is no requirement to pray, to profess a particular faith or even to cop a sermon in pursuit of a feed.   

I find that really special because I’ve got to say not every organisation has that same sort of outlook. Everyone knows here that anybody who plays up will not be tolerated. People here are never treated with contempt or aggression, but there is zero tolerance for any shenanigans. That makes everyone feel safe.  

Ana 

I’ve been coming here a long time. I can’t actually recall how many years exactly. I don’t come here every day. I come with my very close friend, to keep her company. I had a car accident and that really set me back in many ways. My balance is no good, my mind is no good, my brain is full of fog. I often have difficulty cooking at home, so I enjoy coming here with my friend.  

To go out is good for my mental health. It’s great to meet good people here. They take very good care of us. The special thing here is that the volunteers – the people who cook for us every day, and all the other people who take care of us – have good eyes and good hearts. Because Davey and Baker have good eyes, they are always watching for any sign of an argument or anything that would threaten our safety.  

Their vigilance is so important, especially when you have women here. That’s what we want more than anything else – a safe environment. I have always felt safe here. Davey and Baker are always looking out to ensure that men are not being disrespectful to us. I want to say one more thing – no one will ever starve in Sydney, because of St Canice’s. 

“Coming here helps with costs,” says Benny Oakley, “but it’s also equally important to have company, to have people to connect with and talk to. We get lonely but anyone can come here and you’re never judged.”  Photo: David McMahon

Benny Oakley:  

My grandfather was one of the people who helped set up the ABC and my dad was a well-known documentary maker. His name was John Oakley and he won an Emmy Award for The Hunter and the Hunted, which they filmed in Argentina. He also did Man on the Rim. He died seven years ago in Cuba and they sent his ashes home in a Cuban cigar box. I think he knew when he was leaving here that he wouldn’t actually be coming back. I could see it in his eyes. He got pneumonia there. He and my Mum went to the bar that Ernest Hemingway patronised and they ordered margaritas but he went to sleep in a chair and never woke up. 

I started coming here when I was homeless last year. People told me about this place. I was hungry and looking for something to eat. I’ve got housing now, luckily. I don’t just come here for the food, I come here to socialise as well. It gets a bit lonely. I think it’s really important to have places like this – we’re lucky in Sydney. There’s always someone to talk to here. 

When I was sleeping on the street, I was so grateful when I was given housing. However, even if you have a roof over your head, you still need to talk to someone. Coming here helps with costs but it’s also equally important to have company, to have people to connect with and talk to. We get lonely but anyone can come here to have a coffee and a meal and you’re never judged.   

When I was first on the street, I didn’t know about St Canice’s. I was starving, literally, and I lost a lot of weight. I was stealing food from the food court in a shopping mall – I’d wait for someone to leave some food on a plate and I’d take it and eat it before the cleaners picked it up and dumped it. But I didn’t want to keep doing that. On my birthday, I woke up in an abandoned place and I thought, I’m not doing this. Someone told me about the Edward Eagar Lodge and it was beautiful, clean and almost like walking into the Hilton. From there I found out about different places to eat, but St Canice’s is my favourite.  

People come here and they’re calm on these premises, even if they’re normally pacing up and down and they’re angry out on the street. This place is special because everyone relaxes here – there is a real atmosphere of calm.  

For Jack, who migrated to Australia 30 years ago, “There is a sense of community here, as well as a real sense of belonging. Nothing can be better than that.” Photo: David McMahon

Jack:

I’m originally from West Papua. I migrated to Australia in 1994. I’m not a regular here, but I do come sometimes with my friends. You can have Facebook and social media, which is all very well, but the interactions we have right here are one-on-one. You are actually face-to-face with others here. Because of that, there is a sense of community here, as well as a real sense of belonging. Nothing can be better than that.

Linda:  

She is sitting at a table on a side wall, watching a video clip on her phone. She switches it off and agrees to tell her story. However, she does not want the conversation taped, simply because she feels her English is not good enough. She smiles when I tell her that her English is much better than my Mandarin, which consists of just three phrases. 

I have a special reason for coming here. I bring my 42-year-old son here. He has a disability and suffers from mental health problems. I am retired now, so I see it as my duty to devote as much time to him as possible.  

This is much more than just an outing for him, and much, much more than just a meal in the presence of these wonderful, generous volunteers. My son recently slashed his wrist because of his poor mental health and had to receive urgent treatment for the wound, but he enjoys coming here. It makes him happy. As a mother, it is my duty to protect him – which is why I bring him here, because he never feels judged.  

For Robert Norford, “One of the big things about coming here is the safety. If there is any trouble, security will get onto it very quickly to make sure nothing becomes an issue.” Photo: David McMahon

Robert Norford: 

One of the big things about coming here is the safety. There are no fights. There’s no one who acts up here. If there is any trouble, security will get onto it very quickly to make sure nothing becomes an issue. We’re all here because of a reason, but no one judges you. 

I enjoy coming here. I come here because money doesn’t stretch all the way, even when you’re careful. I don’t drink and I don’t do drugs, and in spite of that, I know that I’m not going to have enough. So it helps to come here and to know that you’re safe and in a place where all the volunteers are polite and genuinely care about you.  

If you want to talk to other guests who come here, that’s fine; if not, there is no expectation that you have to sit down and engage others in a chat. The people here do a great job feeding us like clockwork and we’re extremely grateful. 

Chris: 

She is just passing through today, on the way to a medical appointment, and will not be staying for lunch. But Chris’ personality, her quick sense of humour and her warmth shine through instantly. Her eyes sparkle in a very special way.  

She does not want our conversation to be recorded, nor does she want her photograph taken. “Look at these wrinkles,” she quips. When I tell her they’re wisdom lines rather than wrinkles, she chuckles and says, “Nice try, but I’m still not going to let you take my photograph.” A few seconds later, her eyes are twinkling as she asks if I have a lens that will make her look 20 years younger. When I assure her – tongue in cheek – that I do, she jocularly waves a hand in dismissal, but continues talking.  

For the sake of accuracy, and mindful that her name can be spelt more than one way, I ask if she is “C-H-R-I-S” and she gives me a sidelong glance, replying, “How many ways do you think my name can be spelt? Yes, that is exactly how you spell it. I don’t spell it some fancy way!”  

I’ve been coming here a long time. Back in the day it wasn’t hot food or freshly cooked meals as it is now. I’m happy to talk to you about the Kitchen but put that camera away. I hate having my picture taken. I’m a lady of a certain age and cameras tend to highlight the wrinkles. It’s not that I don’t want to be identified, but I’m not a fan of looking into a camera lens.   

I love the atmosphere here. There are always conversations with the volunteers, and there is a lot of banter and humour. I love that. I enjoy a good one-liner or a quip. I think safety is a big factor here thanks to Davey and Baker – I mean, who in the world would want to tangle with those big lads! This place is special – it gives, but it gives with heart and soul and in a way that always welcomes you back.  

Istvan: 

He approaches me with a big smile on his face and says, “I know you’re in the middle of talking to someone, but would you mind taking my picture?” 

Benny Oakley, the person who is in mid-conversation with me, smiles and nods. “Yes, please go ahead,” he says graciously. 

Istvan, his cap at a jaunty angle, is ready for his portrait. He is standing to attention like a guardsman, but the light is better a few feet away, so I ask if he would mind shifting to a spot that I point out. Eagerly, he moves without hesitation. After I’ve shot a few quick frames, I show them to him and he gives me a thumbs-up.  

Thank you very much. I don’t remember the last time anyone took a photo of me with a real camera. Look at the tiny square photo on this ID card of mine. That’s just a normal photo like anyone has on photo ID, but I like these ones you’ve taken. 

I don’t come here every day, but there is always good food and if you want to talk to someone, there are lots of guests and volunteers to speak to. Some of the guests prefer to keep to themselves. That’s fine. I’ll tell you something very interesting. When I was born in Europe, my grandmother said she wanted me to become a priest. The strange thing is, I don’t ever remember her actually telling me that. But after she died, my mother told me.

Nora’s father is a builder in Greece. She says: “He’s a tough man and from the time I was eight years old, I was like a slave. I used to help out by carrying buckets of concrete, barefoot. That’s how I started developing muscles. I went to the junior Olympics and I am a former world champion as well.” Photo: David McMahon

Nora:  

Nora cannot read or write, but refers endearingly to young volunteer Ollie Mulhearn as her guardian angel. If Nora ever has paperwork to do, Ollie takes her to ensure that it is filled out correctly. He was by her side when she applied for an Opal card, the smartcard ticketing system used on public transport in Sydney and other parts of New South Wales. Ollie tells me that lunch at St Canice’s is often Nora’s only meal of the day. Nora smiles throughout our conversation, especially when talking about the volunteers at the Kitchen. 

I’ve been coming here for nine years. The simple reason is that I have nowhere else to go. In that time, I have seen big changes, but the people here do magic. They don’t just serve food and care for us when we’re here. When the battery charger for my bike blew up recently, I had no other way of getting here. For two days, I literally had to walk all the way here and then back again.  

But they fixed my bike. Ollie is my carer. That’s what I mean when I say they do magic They don’t just feed people and care for us here, they go far beyond that. I’m not going to live forever. I have a heart problem. My time is limited. I had a triple bypass four years ago and now I need a stent because I have a blockage.  

I was born here in Australia but my family took me back to Greece later. I came back here in 2001 to escape my parents. I’m a bodybuilder. My father was – and still is – a builder in Greece. He’s a tough man and from the time I was eight years old, I was like a slave. I used to help out by carrying buckets of concrete, barefoot. That’s how I started developing muscles. I went to the junior Olympics and I am a former world champion as well. I work out every day, but my doctors have told me not to do this now because I need a stent. I want to compete again, but I’d need sponsorship to do so. 

I get help and friendship here – doctors, social workers, nurses, carers. I like to be here. I know everybody here. So many people here have problems, problems with their health and other problems as well. Coming here for me is so much more than just having a meal. We’ve got everything here. Good company and a safe place. They’re my family. 

Learn more about how St Canice’s Kitchen aims to end homelessness 

Banner image shows chairs neatly stacked on outdoor tables after the guests at St Canice’s Kitchen have gone. Photo: David McMahon

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