As the Gatwick shuts, old residents come calling

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 Words by Liz Clarkson. Photos by Hilmar Anton Machado

 

“You’ll never guess who called in today,” says Rose Banks with a sparkling eye.  Her daughter tilts her head in Rose’s direction.

 

“The grand-children of old George flew down from Newcastle this morning to see where he used to live.”

 

George had lived at the Gatwick Hotel for 30 years.

 

When news of the Gatwick’s pending closure spread, the connections from times past returned for a farewell with long time owners Rose Banks and Yvette Kelly.

Lisa arrives and embraces Rose. An very emotice moment

 

“Every street in St Kilda had boarding houses,” explained Yvette Kelly.  “It was a very tough area but now the Gatwick is the last one.  “

 

So what kept these twin sisters, who began working at the Gatwick at 14, devoted to providing a haven for the needy?  The answer is in the family’s history.

 

Their parents, Ronald & Victoria Carbone emigrated from Malta in 1952, penniless.  They worked seven days a week and their family grew to seven children, Rose & Yvette being the youngest.  The Carbones established a successful restaurant in Fitzroy Street and later bought the Gatwick Hotel in 1971.  Mrs Carbone never forgot their gruelling start in a new country and wanted to help the community that she knew intimately from their years of trading in St Kilda.

 

When Mrs Carbone became sick, her husband obtained permission for their youngest two: Rose and Yvette to leave school to help at the hotel. The day’s work began at 5am, even on weekends.  They prepared the first of three meals they would serve each day.  Working day finished after the laundry was done after dinner.  While meals ceased being served at the Gatwick 30 years ago, Rose and Yvette still work each day in the hotel.

 

How did these two women stay on this path for 46 years as they married, had children and became grand-mothers?  “It’s just a passion,” says Rose. Yvette nods in agreement. Current and former residents call into the kitchen area to say hello to the sisters during our visit.  The camaraderie between them all is hard to miss.

 

“Mum, I haven’t eaten” says Darren, a Gatwick resident, who sits down with Rose.  “I had my medication yesterday and I can’t sleep now.”  Rose offers to buy him a pie but he moves on to tell her that the girls at the pokies keep calling him in.  “Don’t go near the pokies,” she implores. They chat for a few more minutes and Darren becomes calmer and decides to have a rest in his room.

Current resident, Darren.

 

Another resident, Lisa arrives with her partner and a newborn, whose middle name is Rose.  The couple met at the Gatwick.  Lisa recounts that without Yvette and Rose she would most likely have never given up drugs and moved onto happier times. They drove from NSW, where they now reside, to wish Yvette and Rose well and thank them for the support that changed their lives.

 

“At least a dozen people a day call in to say hello,” says Yvette.  “Sometimes they have fallen off the wagon and need support.  Other times it is for a chat and to let us know what is happening in their lives.”

 

Belinda calls in every week when she returns to a St Kilda pharmacy for her medication.
“I love coming back here even though my partner and I now have our own home through State Housing.”  Belinda’s demeanour alludes to her rough path but this is softened by her cheer and praise for the support provided during her residency at the Gatwick.

 

The visitors keep appearing and the same message echoes every few minutes “If it wasn’t for Yvette and Rose, I would not have survived,” says Belinda.

 

The record stay for a Gatwick resident stands at 45 years.  Mr Farrago was 90 years old when he passed away.  More than 40 per cent of Gatwick’s residents have lived there for more than 20 years.

 

A resident prepares to leave. Photo: Hilmar Anton Machado

 

The sisters speak with the residents and visitors in a tone that indicates a skilled ability to promptly assess a situation.  Their wise and warm, yet firm communication evokes an air of relaxation.  They do not deny the tough side of life at the Gatwick, but are adamant that the problems arising from the ice epidemic of the past six or seven years have been the most difficult of all.  Yvette and Rose emphasise that the bulk of the problems occur outside the Gatwick and usually by non-residents.

 

“We’ve had our moments,” Yvette remarks.  “It is very unpleasant to have to clear someone’s airways when they are choking but it saves their life. We’re there to hold their hands while waiting for an ambulance.  I don’t think that any of those that bag us have ever given a day of their life to help a stranger, yet we have given every day for 46 years,” she says.

 

They know many of the residents have mental health issues and said the problem became worse in the 1980s’ after the Kennett Government closed many of the mental health institutions.  In 1995 Rose and Yvette initiated a fortnightly meeting with residents called ‘Health Time’. Social workers, mental health nurses and housing workers attendthe meeting which is a forum for issues and concerns to be raised that require help beyond what Rose and Yvette can offer.

 

“We know how to contain issues in-house.  We have had a lot of bad press, most of which is untrue,” says Yvette.  “There are a lot of allegations and media reports of crimes supposedly committed at Gatwick, but we seldom see anyone charged or anything being done to prevent it.  Most people have forgotten that the Police were called regularly to all of the old boarding houses.  There was always a Police presence in St Kilda.  Some of the old places were horrendous.  We stand out now because we are the last of the privately owned rooming houses, so the focus is always on us. Yet, we have always been found compliant with all of the council and state regulations”

Art Deco era elegance in the reception area. Photo: Hilmar Anton Machado

In recent months, Yvette and Rose have been working to find alternative accommodation for the 80 residents.  As each one is re-housed, the Council sends a contractor to board-up the doorway of the room.  Yvette and Rose have a special memory of each room and the former residents who lived there.  It is gut wrenching each time a room is sealed.

 

The beauty of the building was not lost with its reputation.  The marble steps at the entry lead into wide corridors with high ceilings.  The red carpet is akin to the flooring in many cinemas.  The wood balustrade of the internal stairs remains shiny and the office is la living example of Art Deco.  At their father’s request, family and residents painted the trompe de l’oeil on the dining room walls that looks like a stonemason crafted the room, along with painting on a stable door and horse looking through.  The old three metre cast-iron oven has been idle for many years and more than hints at the warmth it would have created on winter evenings.  The original stained-glass windows are in excellent condition with the only breakage having occurred recently when some youths came in and let of fire crackers.

 

Although community agencies and charities asked the Gatwick to house their clients over the years, Yvette and Rose are saddened that none of these organisations have responded to their request to help re-house residents.

 

“For all those years people have placed the most vulnerable residents in our care, now we’re told we’re out of our depth,” said Rose.

 

“We will be here until the last resident is re-housed and comfortable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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