TO those whizzing past on their morning train from Williamstown, Graeme would be invisible.
But if the office-ready commuters looked quickly, and closely, enough they would notice black smoke billowing from behind a small section of brick wall.
The crumbling structure separates the train line from the abandoned industrial building that this father-of-two calls home. It offers no protection from the 5C overnight minimum he has just endured with his mate, John. But that’s what their camp fire is for, they say.
Last night, like most nights, the middle-aged pair had their fire cranking, and watched it burn over “a few beers”. Then they retired to their near-freezing, powerless quarters.
Having slept in this dilapidated shed, off and on, for several years, Graeme is now almost immune to Melbourne winters. Besides, his “three or four sleeping bags” do the trick, he says.
It’s a lifestyle that most of us can only imagine.
But on this particular night – the shortest night of the year – dozens of business and community leaders are doing their best to get some insight into the lives of this city’s thousands of homeless.
It’s the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, and they are camping out on an underground carpark at the University of Melbourne. It’s an honourable initiative that ultimately raised more than $700,000 this year alone.
But as Graeme and John “sleep rough” 12km away, for the umpteenth time, the contrast between Melbourne’s haves and the have-nots could barely be starker.
Earlier in the night, like he does most nights, Graeme had joined the queue for a soup kitchen in the inner west.
As he waited patiently with some homeless and hungry peers, cars packed with parents and sweaty teenagers streamed past the van. A local basketball comp is in full swing.
Just like the train commuters, these passersby take little notice of those who will not be going home to a hot shower.
Graeme scores a sandwich and sausage roll, chats briefly to others in the line, and then heads back to the train station.
He’s nursing sore ribs, which just a week earlier left him in Footscray Hospital for three nights after being sent there in an ambulance.
“Someone kicked me in the ribs,” says Graeme, who once made his living as a drum maker and forklift driver in several states across the country.
“But don’t worry about him, mate, I’ll fix him up.”
Graeme does not like to describe himself as homeless. He says he could stay with his daughter and her four children, if he wanted.
In better times, Graeme built and owned his own home in Melbourne’s western suburbs and was married for 23 years. “Then my missus decided to go around with some other bloke, so I wasn’t hanging around.”
Now 57, he likes to “travel around” and regularly goes fishing with John and some of the other mates who squat in the rail-side abode. If they get lucky down at the pier, they’ll have bream or flathead on the BBQ.
While accommodation is a big problem for Melbourne’s homeless, Graeme believes nobody needs to go hungry.
On nights when the soup van does not have enough volunteers to operate, he will head to neighbouring suburbs: “I can get hot sausages in North Melbourne.”
“There are heaps of things around,” he says.
“If you are going hungry, you are going downhill.”
The Greatest Need Project is an online story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
By making a donation on Graeme’s behalf – and sharing his story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.