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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Sleep at the 'G

Youth homelessness is a big issue in Victoria, with over 22,000 homeless souls unsure of their next night's sleep, and roughly half of those under 25 years old. Coming from a comfortable, 'unbroken' home on Sydney's North Shore, with a healthy, happy family, access to great education, always enough to eat, and a warm, comfortable bed - plus many, many other perks - I often feel guilt about my fortunate upbringing. This translates into huge sympathy for anyone less fortunate.

I've lived in Melbourne for over four years now, and have come to realise how important a landmark the MCG is to this city. Not only is it the spiritual home of AFL to any Melburnian worth their salt, but it embodies our sporting culture, or at least what we like to think our sporting culture is: warmth, the encouragement to excel, a sense of community, pride in our history, and not least the old adage of 'a fair go' for all. So, it seemed a fitting venue for a youth homelessness fundraiser: tying in the opportunity to get a feel for sleeping without creature comforts, and a chance to partake in Melbourne's history by sleeping overnight at "the 'G" - not something your average Joe Blow gets to do.

The event was called Sleep at the 'G, held by the Melbourne City Mission on one of the first cold nights this autumn, with an overnight low of six degrees. We rugged up and, on arrival, were given a beanie, water bottle, pillow (what luxury!), and cardboard box on which to sleep. It was BYO-sleeping-bag, which every attendee laid out, one after the other, down the stadium concourse.

Bed preparation

Our quarters for the night were directly outside the ladies' toilets, and opposite an open stairwell leading to the stands. I was a little nervous about the cold air exposure, and wary of how much sleep I'd get with loos flushing behind my head all night. But - hey! - this was not anything to complain about. Imagine full air exposure, and road traffic, and no amenities... every night!

My 'bed' on the MCG concourse, just outside the girls' loos

We lined up to collect dinner: a cup of soup, bread roll, and meat pie, distributed by perky volunteers, and I took mine up into the stands to eat whilst enjoying the entertainment provided. Again - this was not a usual perk of homelessness! - but musos including Tim Rogers' band The Hillbilly Killers and the Livingstone Daisies had proffered their talents for the event.

Entertainment in one pocket of the cold, deserted 'G

As the night air grew chillier, many campers wandered around the deserted stadium, revelling in its vibe - so different to its usual commercial bustle. I found the atmosphere respectful, peaceful, friendly, and a little bit excited. I felt safe. What a contrast to the emotional experiences of someone living homeless every day.

Rows of empty

Odd structures and lighting on the field

By 11pm, the entertainment had wrapped up and everyone bunkered down. I needn't have been concerned about the noise of the toilets: participants down the concourse played up like teenagers at a slumber party, giggling and shrieking well into the wee hours. The organisers had thoughtfully provided sound effects of traffic whooshing past, as though we were sleeping under a bridge, but, due to my neighbours, I couldn't hear the sound effects very well in order to appreciate them! Either way, it was upon us to fall asleep against a backdrop of unusual and unwanted noise, so I pulled my beanie down over my ears and nestled as far into my sleeping bag as I could.

Not the culprits

The comfort factor was, surprisingly, the least difficult to deal with - or maybe I'd landed a good cardboard box. I managed to fall asleep for a few hours, until my neighbour woke me at 5:45am, warning me that we were being 'moved on'. Real-life (I think) policemen were blowing whistles and shining torches into peoples' faces, yelling at them to clear out. They tried to hide their smiles and maintain a serious fa├žade, but this was clearly a fun duty for them, almost an acting exercise.

Initially, I appreciated the drama of it, and the organisers' intention to simulate a real-life homeless experience. However, a friend later pointed out that it was actually very insensitive. We live in a society barely able to provide the resources to help combat homelessness, and yet our civil forces - chiefly employed to protect all its citizens - count it among their normal duties to forcefully relocate the homeless, who are not only citizens as much as everyone else but, by definition, have nowhere else to go! What a cock-up.

It took me a few minutes to pack up, and then, along with the masses, I collected my breakfast muffin (ignored the coffee urn, knowing full well I was only minutes from proper espresso... I know, I know), and exited the 'G. Just like that, it was over and I found myself lugging sleeping bag and pillow through an eery Yarra Park, still dark. It was too early to eat (and I very rarely don't eat), so I chucked the muffin, and tapered through East Melbourne in a homeward direction. A few early-morning runners and dog-walkers gave me strange looks (I can only assume due to my odd beanie-clad appearance and sleeping paraphernalia), reminding me of the distasteful looks many homeless folks must receive on a regular basis.

It was a night that gave me a new appreciation for the simple things. It wasn't exactly an earth-shattering experience, especially considering the comforts like shelter, toilets, food and entertainment we were provided with (and which I am so glad to have received!), but it certainly provoked thoughts and emotions I hadn't anticipated. More importantly, the event reached, and has now exceeded, its fundraising goal of $300,000. Well done and thanks to Melbourne City Mission and the MCG for putting on the event, and to all the participants and donors for wanting to make the world a better place.