Summer 2016-17

More than 730,000 children live in poverty in Australia

Herbert Portanier reflects on a recent home visit in Melbourne’s south-east, where he encountered a harrowing scene of a baby living in poverty.

One cannot describe a more beautiful Christmas card than a baby being born in a stable; but in reality it would have been quite traumatic to give birth in a stable where animals are kept, lacking the comfort and safety of a home.

Cover of the Poverty in Australia 2016 report.
Data from the ACOSS 2016 poverty report revealed 17.4 per cent of all children in Australia live in poverty. The St Vincent de Paul Society was a partner in the study.

At the St Vincent de Paul Society, we are trained to cope with most situations; people just released from prison, people affected by illicit drugs, people under the influence of alcohol, victims of domestic violence and so forth. When we knock on people’s doors we are prepared to face confronting circumstances.

But on one particular day, we were not at all prepared. It was a cold winter’s day and we were asked to deliver food assistance to a single mother. We thought it was a routine call, until we arrived. To our shock, we saw a two-week-old baby sleeping on a blanket on the floor.

Seeing a baby on the floor, I could not help but feel pain. I felt an immediate comparison with baby Jesus, who was born in a stable and soon became a refugee to avoid Herod’s decree to slaughter all males under two years old.

The apartment was sparsely furnished, with no beds. We asked how we could assist and she explained that she was living in Australia on an expired visa with no financial entitlements. She had no money for herself or her baby. The baby’s father was helping with rent payments, but not living with them and remained unemployed. Our response was to give food vouchers and Vinnies vouchers, so they could obtain clothes from our shops.

On leaving the apartment, we did not feel right. That night, I was comfortable in my own home, but I could not stop thinking about the baby sleeping on the floor. It was a sleepless night for my colleague too.

The next day we discussed the situation again and agreed to contact the mother to tell her that we were getting her a new bed and a new cot and mattress for her baby. When the furniture was delivered that afternoon, the mother cried with joy. I remember it so vividly.

We tried to contact the mother two weeks later, but could not make contact and don’t know what happened to her and her baby. Were they deported? Had the father taken them in? I don’t think that we will ever find out, but at least through the generosity of our donors, we helped at that particular moment.

Herbert Portanier is President of the Bentleigh/Moorabbin conference in Victoria.

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