It’s 10 am, and there is an ambulance parked out the front of 131B Hopkins Street, Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west. Two paramedics squeeze their way up a narrow staircase and enter what looks to be an ordinary open-plan home, with a kitchen in one corner and some desks by the wide windows that look out over a park. A man in his late 30s is slumped in a floral-print armchair, nodding out, his eyes closed, jaw slack. His younger brother rubs his shoulders, speaking to him in Vietnamese. On his other side is his son, a small boy of around seven, dressed in Kermit-green sneakers, with his black hair grown into a rat’s tail. A female paramedic kneels down at the father’s feet to check his pulse.
A ceiling-high bookshelf, stacked with Penguin classics, poetry anthologies and Shakespeare’s plays, partly closes off a third of the room, and lends privacy to the family of three. On the bookshelf is a sign: Please do not take the books. They are for the Back to School program. The books have been donated to the program, run by social worker Les Twentyman’s 20th Man Fund, to encourage disadvantaged kids to stay in school. But 131B is also a treatment centre and home for those who would otherwise spend their days sitting on street kerbs or keeled over in shop doorways.
By the kitchen sink, a pretty young woman in a vinyl crop top and fish-net tights, with a firework of coloured dreadlocks, makes herself a cup of tea. She is not related to the boy and two brothers, nor are the dozen or so other people filling the house. Some are here to attend a detox program, while others are on drug-replacement therapy, in which a longer-acting but less euphoric opioid such as methadone or Suboxone is substituted for heroin. A doctor comes in four days a week to oversee treatment but, from time to time, paramedics must be called.
Sitting by the window, with a fine network of laugh and worry lines on his face, is outreach worker Richard Tregear, who set up 131B. Tregear knows everyone here by name. “I tell them, if they can make it up the stairs unassisted, they can get help.” Next to his desk is a table on which a grey stone Buddha, a plaster Jesus and a porcelain Virgin Mary huddle around an incense urn. On a wall behind them are dozens of framed images of young people, smiling in their school formal outfits, or caught in a relaxed moment. Tregear knew all of them, too.
Pointing to a picture of a beautiful young woman wearing pink lipstick, Tregear tells me that she met her husband-to-be in Vietnam after the man’s family had sent him there to find a good woman, someone who would help him to kick his drug habit. “She followed him everywhere, trying to help him with his dependency,” Tregear said. They had two children together, but he just couldn’t get clean. “I begged and begged her to return to Vietnam with her kids. It was too hard for her here. But she never did and eventually she gave up and followed her husband into drugs.”
Tregear points to a young man: “This is Thien. He got cut with a samurai sword in a nightclub brawl. His best friend cradled him in the back seat of the car as they drove all the way to Footscray hospital. By the time they arrived, it was too late.”
A tall blond man runs up the stairs and Tregear turns towards him. “What’s the matter, Sammy?” Sammy says his sister is downstairs, in a bad way. Tregear hollers down to her: “Don’t come up, Narelle! I’ll bring a chair down to you!”
Half an hour later, Narelle makes it up the stairs, with Sammy and Tregear’s help. “I just need some place comfy to sit.” She slumps on the sofa and falls asleep. In one hand is an unlit cigarette; the other rests on her belly, in the repose of a child. One shoe drops off her foot. Tregear leaves me to keep an eye on her. “Just make sure she’s still breathing.”
A gaunt man with a jovial smile affectionately taps her on the head with a sheaf of papers. Another man – heavier built, tattooed – comes by and kicks Narelle’s dangling foot. “Get up!” he says. “You don’t look too good like that. Show some respect to yourself!”
Narelle half opens her eyes. “Whaaaa?”
“You’re making this place look bad! Sit up.”
Narelle turns, murmurs something, then nods off again.
There are signs everywhere at 131B: Please do not take the instant noodles away. Enjoy them here. No food or drinks near the computer: contravening this 131B by-law will result in a public flogging in the park!
Tregear takes me outside and shows me the site of putative floggings. More paddock than park, Maddern Square is bordered by metal roller doors, with security cameras fixed to the surrounding walls. “These cameras can record our voices, too,” Tregear explains. An extremely skinny man saunters up to Tregear. His cheeks are concave and scabby red. Tregear tells him in Vietnamese, “Keith, you need to eat more rice.”
Keith jokes, “I’ll eat more pho.”
“No, Keith, eat rice. It’s better for you.” Tregear slaps him on the back. “But you are looking much better.” Keith smiles, then spots some familiar faces over Tregear’s shoulder, and takes out his wallet.
“Hey,” Tregear admonishes, “remember what I said? No dealing within 50 metres of the building.”
“OK, OK, Richard. I’ll go to that tree.” He points to the far end of the park.
When we return upstairs, a man named Matt is in to see the doctor. Stocky and spectacled, Matt hugs Tregear and proudly tells me he has four kids, the oldest of whom is 15. “I’ve been clean for a long time.” He now works in IT. “Say hello to your wife,” says Tregear. “Tell her I’ll be in Da Nang in the middle of next month if she wants me to do anything for her family.”
When Tregear takes me to the train station, we pass my father’s old electrical appliance shop, just a few doors up from 131B. His shop sign is still above the roller shutters. When I was growing up, dealers would do business in the shop’s “sound lounges”. Young men would overdose in the park, and ambulances would wail up and down the streets where Romper Stomper was filmed. We were taught the world was divided into good refugees and bad refugees: the bad refugees were the ones doing drugs, who were weak and threatened the efforts of those trying to be the model minority. Driving on, Tregear points out several of the large, double-storey AV Jennings homes acquired by the good refugees, often through years of bone-numbing work, and connects them with some of the faces on the wall in 131B.
As he pulls up, his phone rings. “Yes, I’ll leave it for you underneath my doormat.” He explains to me that Thien’s best mate, the one who held him in the back seat of the car as he bled to death, is currently on drug-replacement therapy. After he drops me off, Tregear will go to pick up his daughter from her shift at Kmart.
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