Backpackers Dine On Our Charity Dollars

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By Alec Nejad


Hungry backpackers have been posing as the homeless or destitute, enjoying meals and food meant for Port Philip’s ever growing disadvantaged community says Tracey Whiteside, chairperson of the owners corporation community of the St Kilda George Apartments. The nearby Sacred Heart Mission’s Chief Executive, Cathy Humphries, agrees that backpackers often front up for food: “Often they quite quickly see what the service is about. If not, they’re quietly and sensitively told what we’re about.”

This startling phenomenon might come as a surprise to many, but charities operating in backpacker popular stomping grounds such as Melbourne’s Swanston Street and Flinders Streets precincts have been feeding tourists who clearly aren’t locals, homeless, or otherwise in need. They are often well dressed, wearing designer clothes, clean, and even carrying their trademark backpacks. And they are taking meals funded or donated by Melbourne’s selfless, for the community’s most vulnerable.

This has been going on for some time now. The first reported case was in early 2013, when the rate of individuals suspected to be non-genuine homeless was as high as 15%. The figure may in fact be quite higher with this having now spread to Port Philip coupled with the passage of time..

Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army’s Outreach Vans in the CBD, where this issue was first reported by The Age newspaper in March 2013, also alluded to a more disturbing safety issue that many of these backpackers would probably be naive to: “Some of the guys that we see at the van are dealing with some complex issues… They’re dealing with, obviously, homelessness but also some pretty serious mental health issues as well.” Much like his colleague at Sacred Heart, Major Nottle suggests a more subtle approach is best: “We’re saying to backpackers, this is probably not the best place to go to. There are other options for cheap feeds, the Hare Krishnas on Swanston Street and places like that.”

Other states also are not immune. Sydney’s backpacker and homeless culinary scenes have also begun to merge. Reverend Bill Crews of Exodus Foundation, who runs a food van at the popular Domain carpark, told The Age that he was “powerless to act”. He went on to say his Foundation was not about to jeopardise the strong relationship it had with its fragile clientele: “It had taken years to build up the trust of Sydney’s homeless, who would quickly be frightened off if charity volunteers began asking questions”.`

The new Space Hotel on Fitzroy Street is set to open despite friction from much of the general population, helped in part by avoiding the label of “backpackers” by having a small number of private suites. It boasts a whopping 267 beds and a basement level licensed entertainment area, sure to make our foreign friends quite famished and heading to the nearest food van for a cheap (free) feed. There might now be a renewed impetus to have the controversial low-budget hotel, which managed to survive a three year court battle, shelved for good.

In an unusual twist to the saga of backpackers and charities, charity marketer Cornucopia Consulting has reportedly been offering would-be tourists free flights to Melbourne in return for them acting as collectors, what is often known locally as ‘chuggers’ (charity muggers). The company even openly advertises it on their website and actively markets on their Facebook page. However, neither source bothers to mention that three new signups are required each day over a period of six months to pay for their trip. Certainly a great deal of pressure even for a professional salesperson. How many times have you walked straight past one recently? What would become of one of these poor souls unable to meet the quota and with whatever funds they have slowly drying up?

Let’s not overlook the greater moral issue here. . Should charities be in a position to refuse food to anyone who asks for it? How could or should a person be deemed to be destitute enough to warrant receiving free food? Should the nation’s homeless or less well off be required to carry some sort of homeless ID card to prove their eligibility? It is the policy of many charities to never turn anyone away, but where if anywhere should the line be drawn? The kind and giving public no doubt has a right to know where their money and volunteer time is going.

If the Sacred Heart Chief Executive Cathy Humphries who spoke at length to The Age newspaper is not panicking and suggests compassion and understanding is in order, then maybe that is simply good enough for the rest of us sitting comfortably in our living rooms this winter. “And you know what? Often they become volunteers and contribute to the work of the mission… People should step back a bit and stop being so judgmental.” Humphries went on to remind Port Philip residents, 31% of which were born outside of Australia, that “perhaps they were backpackers in their past, in another country”.


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