Wednesday, 06 November 2013

St Kilda Gatehouse: love and choices

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Some of the most vulnerable and marginalised women in our city told us that they would be safer if St Kilda Gatehouse was open more often. So simple, so easy and yet so difficult to do.

In the aftermath of Tracy Connelly’s murder The Tribune published an article about how her life and death were portrayed in the media. We were told it made a difference, but a difference to what? It was a brief moment in time, a slight, momentary shift in public perception. Maybe that was something, but it didn’t seem like enough, not nearly enough, as redress for a human life, taken violently and far far too young.

But what would make a difference to the women like Tracy, the ones who shared her life and continue to live in the world she left?

It seems so obvious to just ask the women themselves. Obvious, but not easy.

The women who do sex work on Greeves St are justifiably suspicious of outsiders. At best, they are “do-gooders” dropping by to speak rather than listen. At worst, outsiders come in, viciously judgemental, to do more harm.

Even asking the question felt ignorant and intrusive.

“What do you need to feel safer?”

“Are you fucking kidding?”

“What the fuck is that to you?”

“I don’t need anything, I’m fine, I can look after myself.”

- Women, Greeves St

Despite this, many of the women were generous with their time and patient with my ignorance.

“You’re gonna drop in here out of your nice safe little world and write about us and be all edgy and then go back to your nice safe little world, but we’ll still be here, you know?”

- Woman, Greeves St

She wasn’t angry, she was just making a statement of fact and we both knew she was right. But, even so, she still shared something of her world.

“I’ve been on the streets since I was about 13 I think. And people come down and say things like why don’t you go work in a brothel, because they think that would be safer. They’ve never worked in a brothel of course, so they’ve got no fucking idea, but they think I’ll be safer if I’m somewhere they can’t see me.

Or they say why don’t you go get a job at Coles or something. Hahaha. Have a look at me, do you think I could get a job at Coles? I’m still using, no one is going to give me a job and even if they did, it wouldn’t be enough and you can’t do that kind of job while you’re using, so what else am I going to do?

“What would make us safer? How about if the Gatehouse was open a bit more? How about if it was open at night? Maybe if it was Tracy wouldn’t be dead now.”

- Woman, Greeves St


Gatehouse drop-in centre: why it's vital

The St Kilda Gatehouse Drop-In is open from 12pm to 7pm on Monday and 12pm to 5pm Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. While they have access to all the services and programs on offer for women who want to find a way off the street, Drop-In is not there to push services, only to offer them when they are wanted.

The Gatehouse is unique.

The Gatehouse promotes connection, trust, safety and builds relationships that are crucial as a pathway for change if ever that is sought.

The Gatehouse is like a nest where clients are nurtured and loved, treated with respect and dignity and the girls do come and nestle in an environment that is warm and giving - everyone deserves at least this.

It is a sanctuary/safe haven and in most cases, the only safe house the ladies have.

Sense of family and belonging - again, the only family in a lot of instances.

Unconditional love, concern and care.

No judgement, ever.

Safe environment to be heard and helped.

The clients come first; their needs are paramount.

Long term addiction, abuse, homelessness, mental health issues and shattered lives are the norm for Gatehouse clients and there isn't a cure all program to solve anything, but there is the Gatehouse and I just wish everyone could see what I see and how wonderful and necessary it is.

- Robbyn MacDonald, Volunteer, St Kilda Gatehouse.

Drop-In is not there to do, it’s there to be. It’s there to be a safe haven. It’s there to be a home. It’s there to be a refuge. It’s there to be love. It’s there to be a choice.

And this is both their greatest gift and their greatest problem.

Gatehouse is funded by private donations, with additional assistance from Port Phillip City Council. And they do amazing work on a tiny budget, but Drop-In is the most difficult to fund because it’s the hardest to explain. Donors understand the need for outreach programs, for mentoring to rescue the young girls before they become entrenched in the cycle of addiction and abuse. They understand the cost of detox programs and education and medical services. But it’s more difficult to explain the need for a room, staffed by volunteers who may need to spend years just making cups of tea before they can help the women make changes to their lives.

The thing with fundraising is that it has to be an ongoing thing and so you have to have measureable outcomes. But how do you put KPIs on Drop-In? Is the number of cups of tea you’ve made in a week something you can report? Every conversation, every laugh or cry or moment of connection? It takes years to get these women to trust someone and there’s no way to measure trust. But without it, we can’t give them any of these other services.

– Lucy, Gatehouse Staff Member

All the women I talked to were unequivocal about Gatehouse. They want it open more. It would make them safer and it would give them comfort and refuge

What would make a difference? I don’t know if anything would. Maybe if Gatehouse was open more, that would be one thing. Even just for small things, you know? There’s no toilets here, the nearest one is that servo on Barkly St and they don’t let us in there. So what do you do if you’re working for 14 hours and you need to take a shit? Sometimes the girls just shit in the residents’ front yard. They hate us for that, but what other choice do we have?

- Woman, Greeves St

 Would it matter if Gatehouse was open more? Well fuck yes, of course it would. Tracy died across the road from Gatehouse, it was her home but she couldn’t get in. No one thinks it’s worth the money to keep it open all the time, but fuck, how much is a life worth? Not much when it’s us, huh? It makes me so fucking angry.

- Woman, Greeves St

Well it would be better if Gatehouse was open more. At least you’d have somewhere to go when the carloads of mugs drive past. It’s the ones with 3 or 4 in it that are a problem and they come driving around and around, but there’s nowhere to go to wait until they’re gone. They know that too.

- Woman, Greeves St

Violence comes in many forms

People throw eggs at the women from passing cars. They yell abuse out the window. They pull their children closer and clutch their shopping tighter. They complain to the local council and the police about the women working in their street and existing in their space.

You wouldn’t believe some of the shit these women cop, just from the public. They treat them like shit, like they’re worthless. They’re not worth less, they’re not a different species, they’re just WOMEN.

- Lucy, Gatehouse Staff Member

The women come in sometimes and they’re a bit grumpy or teary because they’ve been raped again and they just need somewhere to go to feel taken care of.

- Sally Tonkin, Gatehouse CEO

She said it so casually, not at all carelessly, but casually. Not because she isn’t sicked and furious when it happens, but because it is too common to be shocked by it any more. After weeks of trying to avoid the passionate internecine battles between internet feminists about rape and how we talk about it, the casual “they’ve been raped again” was sickeningly jarring. This is a world where rape is common; no less painful or damaging for its regulatory, but still, common.

When it happens - and Gatehouse is open - the staff will always offer to help the women with filing a report, but it’s rare that the women will follow through. They don’t expect to be taken seriously, don’t think that anyone will see rape of a street sex worker as a crime, don’t expect that the justice system will give them any justice and don’t really believe that they deserve justice even if they could get it.

But when Gatehouse is open, they have a place where they can go for comfort, for love, for someone to believe that what happened to them was abhorrently wrong, even if they don’t quite believe it themselves.

Most of the women on Greeves St have been on the street since they were very young, 13 seemed to be the usual age. Often because they were from terribly abused backgrounds and 13 is about the age it’s possible for them to leave. Obviously there are exceptions to this, girls from private schools and nice white suburban homes end up here too, but the overwhelming majority have the killer cocktail of childhood abuse, mental illness, drug addiction and social isolation

Well they choose to be there, don’t they? Why don’t they just go and get a job? I mean, I understand desperate circumstances and all, but that’s what I’d do if I was desperate. I might not like the job I’d have to do, but I wouldn’t be on the streets.

- A person who lives in blessed ignorance of what it’s like to live a life where choices were taken away before you were old enough to start making them

I had my first hit (of heroin) when I was twelve, my mum gave it to me for my birthday. She didn’t have anything else to give me.

- Woman, Greeves St

Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an artist and photographer who spent a year as the artist in residence at the Gatehouse in 2010. She collected photographs and stories about the women who come to Gatehouse and published it in her beautiful book, Red Light Dark Room

A woman came into the Gatehouse crying this morning and the first question she was asked by another worker was “did someone hurt you?” It’s always the first question that people ask because being hurt is a daily occurrence.

- Gemma-Rose Turnbull, Red Light Dark Room

I was a country girl, I suppose. I moved around a lot when I was younger, with my mum and that. My mum passed away when I was twelve; my step dad didn’t really like the idea of having three kids from her boyfriend before. He hated us. We moved in with our aunty and she was an alcoholic. She had a nervous breakdown. She was a nutcase. Then we moved into care. Then I suppose I was just hanging around people like that…Looking for love really. I suppose I was lost, I just wanted to belong somewhere.

My mum loved me… She died. There was no choice; there just was no one else.

- Woman, Greeves St

The Gatehouse staff talk about love a lot. How they love the women, how to love the women. That the only way to love them is to love them completely. When they’re angry, when they’re high, when they’re giggly, when they’re distant, when they leave, when they come back, when they’re hopeless, helpless and unable to love themselves. The only thing the Gatehouse staff can really do for them is to love them. To offer love unconditionally, to demonstrate love to women, many of whom have never really known what it is.

They want so much to be loved, if they’re shown something that looks like love – and when you’ve been abused your whole life, how do you know what love really looks like? – but if they see something that might be love, they’ll do anything for it. There are men who use that. You see the women come in and they’re working for their own habit and for their boyfriend’s and they’ll do anything for him, because they say “but he loves me”. So we want them to know what love that doesn’t damage you looks like.

- Lucy, Gatehouse staff member

…when I speak of Gatehouse glowing, being a beacon of light and hope in the dark and cold, I mean that it’s a place that lets people shine, lets people be kind and give words where they have no possessions. It’s a place of refuge and comfort, where extraordinary things happen in the smallest, most insignificant moments.

- Gemma-Rose Turnbull, Red Light Dark Room

Why does Gatehouse matter? I don’t know, I guess it only matters to us. It’s somewhere you can go where you’re not a just a whore or a junkie, where no-one thinks you’re disgusting, I’m just me, y’know? And they’re ok with that.

- Woman, Greeves St

These women, who have so few choices, who have never really had any choices, have told me what they would choose, if they could. They want the Gatehouse to open more often.

The Gatehouse staff have told me that they would love to be there more often, that closing at night is not their choice.

In many ways it’s such a small thing. A small room on one small street. And such a small amount needed to make what may only be a small difference. But in a world without love or choice, this small step would give so much love and choices back to women who have had to little of both those things.

Gatehouse Unlocked

Gatehouse Unlocked is a fundraising effort to raise money for Drop-In. The funds will only be for extending Gatehouse opening hours, because this is what the women who work in Greeves St have said they want.

There will be a fundraising event on November 13th, 2014 alongside an ongoing campaign to raise money for Gatehouse Drop-In.

The Gatehouse Unlocked Pozible campaign is now under way. Please donate, share, like and do everything to help Gatehouse reach their goal. 

You can find our more about St Kilda Gatehouse through their website


Note: Some of the women I talked to did not want me to publish their names, others said they didn’t care. Others said yes at first and then changed their minds. Because of this I decided not to publish any of their names. They all do street sex work on Greeves St, but none of them are what they do; they are, as Lucy said, just women. So I have attributed all the quotes to “Woman”, with my gratitude.

Jane Gilmore

Jane Gilmore is the editor of The King's Tribune.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @JaneTribune