Urban Seed, Melbourne
It must have been nearly 15 years ago when I first heard about Urban Seed. I remember Tim Costello talking at a conference I was attending, and being inspired as he told us about a place in the centre of Melbourne where both business executives and homeless people can sit down to a free lunch; a place where they can get to know each other and begin to see each other as equals. Since then Urban Seed has grown into several communities within Victoria, centred around food, recreation and art. Their ethos is to “foster a sense of home – especially for those of us experiencing homelessness, addiction, mental illness and isolation.” This week, Mike and I had the privilege of doing a ‘live-in’ experience with the city team, where it all began.
Tucked down an ordinary lane, just off Little Collins St, is Credo Café. It’s the hub for community life here. As we waited outside for our host Tim to arrive and take us inside, we observed the street art around us… a fresh interpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper where Jesus and his disciples are depicted as modern-day people who look like they live on the street, poetic reflections about the enslavement of heroin, images of syringes, Aboriginal art… to me the surrounding walls reflected a safe place where individuals are free to express both pain and hope.
Credo Café is in the basement of a tall building owned by and adjoined to Collins Street Baptist Church. Most of this nine story building consists of church offices and meeting rooms, including those used by Urban Seed. The top three floors have become home to a bunch of residents choosing to spend 1–2 years living in the heart of the CBD where they can be readily available to anyone in need. There are currently 8 adults and a newborn living here. Each of the residents are expected to volunteer 3 days a week in exchange for free accommodation. On the other days they may study or work part-time.
Urban Seed was birthed in the early 1990s, when churchgoers at Collins Street Baptist Church were literally stepping over people sleeping rough. Three young people moved into the church and met people living on the streets, creating belonging by sharing meals. Today, this commitment to creating home for those who have none is the basis of our community development work. People are not seen as ‘problems’ but rather gifted individuals who, like everyone, need support to reach their potential. (www.urbanseed.org/about-us)
Getting to work
After dropping our bags on the 7th floor, we entered the café and briefly admired it’s charm and friendliness before launching into food preparation for the day’s free lunch. I love getting to know people as you work on a task together and it was wonderful chatting with Rachel, Kate, Jono and Woodsy while we chopped veggies. I also enjoyed witnessing Woodsy – a steadfast member of the community who’s been coming to Credo for 16 years – express his sense of ownership by telling us what to do, even though he wasn’t in charge! It’s great when those being served become the servers; when lines become blurred as people feel valued and empowered.
Just before the twice-weekly lunch takes place, the Credo team and anyone who would like to, gathers in a corner of the café to sing a few songs, share what’s happening, and light a few candles as they pray for each other, the community and beyond. I found the experience to be casual, authentic and meaningful – just beautiful.
The community lunch that day attracted about 30–40 people, and I thoroughly enjoyed the quality food (some of the best vegetarian “butter chicken” I’ve tasted!) and wonderful company – men and women of different economic and cultural backgrounds.
A walk in their shoes
A particularly informative experience was when we tagged behind a bunch of year 9 students on an Urban Issues Walk. As Evan led us onto Collins St, through arcades and down laneways, he caused us to question our preconceived ideas surrounding issues of homelessness, drug use, safety and social exclusion.
It was humbling to imagine what it would be like to be driven from your home after experiencing domestic violence (a large cause of homelessness) and hop from one friend’s place to another until you had out-stayed your welcome. From there you might end up sheltering in a shopping arcade, only to soon feel unwelcome and have to move on until you found yourself in a dodgy laneway – the only place left. People don’t choose to live in such a dirty, uncomfortable space. They don’t want to live there any more than you or I would, but they’ve been pushed to the margins.
We also tend to have the perception that people who sleep rough could be dangerous, but actually, they’re scared too, wondering if we will be the next person forcing them to move on. They’re just looking for a sense of safety and security like the rest of us.
Not having work and access to the usual forms of recreation that we do, people become bored. They also want to dull the pain in their lives, so drugs, which are easy to obtain and meet immediate needs, often become the solution.
In the late 1990s, during the heroin crisis in Melbourne, the laneway behind Collins St Baptist Church was a popular spot for hitting up. Urban Seed discussed putting up a fence to keep people from using drugs in that space, but knowing users would simply go elsewhere, they decided instead to be available for people in their hour of need. If someone overdosed, this would involve staying by their side to make sure they didn’t fall asleep, or calling an ambulance. The danger with heroin addicts is that their breathing slows right down and actually stops if they fall asleep. But the biggest killer is isolation – without any friends around there’s no one to look after them.
Creativity and connection
Credo Art Space, which happens every Wednesday afternoon, is a brilliant way of helping to heal the brokenness in people’s lives through creative means. During our stay, we had the pleasure of participating in some creative writing. The effervescent and encouraging Bridget taught us some great techniques for getting started and avoiding a ‘blank page’. As we shared our first lines and opening paragraphs I was greatly impressed by the talent in the group. I wish I could be there when they celebrate, perform and showcase their work at the end of next month!
Some of the other activities which offer friendship and support include Women’s Space, Men’s Group, laneway cricket, day trips, weekends away and outreach runs to connect with people who may not otherwise come to Credo Café. If we had been able to stay longer at Urban Seed, I’m sure I’d have filled many more pages with stories about the fantastic things happening here!
Sustaining the life
One of the weekly rhythms at Urban Seed is the team meeting where they reflect on how they are serving others. I appreciated being able to hear a little of what goes on behind the scenes and gain a sense of the challenges they face. For example, several individuals had set up camp in the laneway during the week which was beginning to cause problems in terms of access to the cafe kitchen. The team were discussing how they can be hospitable to these folk and show concern for their needs, without doing this at the expense of others. I appreciated the fragile nature of the situation and the challenge of trying to communicate the idea of ‘shared space’.
At the end of our time with Urban Seed, it was a privilege to participate in Formation – a fortnightly get-together of the city team or once a month get-together of all Urban Seed crew – where they check in with one another and workshop community development practices. I can see how these times give them the strength and energy to keep going as they encourage one another and are reminded of the grace of God. During this day I was able to hang with some of the city residents in particular (who we’d been spending the most time with) and get to know these amazing individuals better.
No doubt the residents and Urban Seed community lead pretty full and tiring lives, with visitors regularly passing through, so I greatly appreciated their warm welcome, interest in our lives, and hospitality throughout the duration of our stay. And I wont forget their generosity in opening up their homes and serving us delicious vegan dinners on both evenings!
Finally, I am greatly inspired by these folk who have chosen to befriend those whom most of society ignores. Their love, humility, servant-heartedness and joy is an incredible witness.
Click here for Mike’s unique perspective on our time with Urban Seed.
If you’d like to know more about Urban Seed, take a look at their excellent website: http://www.urbanseed.org