Chris Cleary is a guardian angel for the homeless in Western Sydney. StreetMed – Homeless Support Team, the charity she founded in 2014, helps provide first aid, medical check-ups, mental health support and advocacy for those living rough on the streets.
Since the pandemic began, she’s provided meals for anyone in need and helped 35 homeless people find government-funded accommodation.
She recently launched StreetPets, a program that helps care for animals owned by the homeless.
Married mother-of-one Chris has devoted her life to helping the homeless and other people at risk because she knows exactly what they’re going through. That’s because she was forced at one time to live on the street herself.
“I was homeless when I was 18 years old,” she says. “I’ve been through a DV [domestic violence] relationship – the assault, the drug use – I've been through all of that. As much as I hated all that happening, it gave me a gift of empathy – to be able to sit there with someone and go, ‘Mate, I've been there and I know that you can make it through.’
“I know the guys on the street. They've always respected me and I've always respected them.”
Before Chris started StreetMed, she was an on-set medic on reality television shows such as The X Factor, Australia's Got Talent and The Bachelor. Disillusioned with her job, she started helping homeless people in Sydney’s west with food, clothing and accommodation – but it soon became clear no-one was offering street-level care.
The day she was asked to provide help for homeless people who were beaten up and suffering mental health issues – and knowing there was no-one available to assist them – she quit her job and started StreetMed.
“StreetMed provides street-level mental health and first aid care,” she says. “We do blood pressures, blood sugars, wound dressings, mental and physical health and a lot of advocacy. If someone needs help to find housing or someone needs help going to the doctor, we will take them and we will advocate for them.”
Help at hand
StreetMed operates at various points around Western Sydney every week. The biggest gathering is on Thursday evenings at Prince Alfred Park in Parramatta.
Chris says she’s fortunate to have only performed CPR once after someone stopped breathing following a seizure. “If the team wasn't there, that person would have died,” she says. “We see a lot of attempted suicides and self-harm, and mental health is my passion. Being able to sit there and talk somebody down from the proverbial bridge is worth everything.
“A hug saves a life. One of the biggest issues for the homeless with COVID-19 is social distancing. For these guys on the street, we could be the only people they see all day. Normally
The need for empathy
Chris wishes more of us showed greater empathy in our lives. “I don't think it matters whether you're homeless or you're sitting in the backyard,” she says. “Everybody should have empathy towards their fellow human being. It doesn't matter what your circumstances are. We all bleed red.
“Help comes back to empathy. Help is understanding. Help is making no judgements. Help is doing the best you can at that time – 100 per cent focused on that person who needs it. It's never looking down on someone unless you're giving them a hand up.
“When you fall that far from where you were in your life, you find you’re actually looking for places and organisations that give you that empathy to help get you back to where you were.”
Why does Chris do it? Because she loves ‘her’ homeless community. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful community,” she says. “They know I respect them and they know that I love and adore them. And it's absolutely reciprocated.
“I really do feel good about it, but not in an ‘ego’ way. I'm only as good as my team and seeing my team happy is probably the biggest reward. Seeing the patrons come up and – pre-COVID – give me a hug and say, ‘thank you’. That's what makes me happy.”