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What’s a dumb and stupid question?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

A periodical insight into the people behind the issue of homelessness in Bondi.

The second time I met Joe I was rushing through Bondi Junction with my sons. It’d been about a month since we were first introduced.

“Look Mum! There’s Joe! Can we go and say hello?”

My sons and two friends were with me when I met Joe that first time. All were fascinated by this man like no one else they’d met before.

“He looks like he should be kind of a bit scary,” said my eight-year-old as we crossed the road to the entrance of Eastgate Shopping Centre where Joe stood, “but he’s like SO not. He’s SO nice!”

Joe greeted us with a big smile.

“You learn a lot about people in this job,” he tells me a few weeks later as we sat chatting on Bondi Road. “The number of people I’ve seen cross the road, walk a few metres, then cross back to the other side… just so they don’t have to greet a bloke like me.”


A bloke like Joe.  If you live around Bondi Road or shop in Bondi Junction you’ve probably rushed past him dozens of times. With his distinctive face and bright Big Issue vest, Joe’s hard to miss.  He’s the guy with the long silver beard, wizened face and definitively ‘non-designer’ tats patterning his thin arms. He stands quietly, the Big Issue magazine held aloft.

“What’re you up to today, boys?” Joe asked when we reached him.

“Boring stuff,” my younger son complained.

I rolled my eyes. Joe smiled. Those creases and crevices made of a hard life deepened. I noticed his eyes smiled too. Wise eyes. Interested eyes.  When some people smile their eyes remain disconnected. Not Joe. When Joe smiles, his eyes light up and smile with him.


“Make sure you listen to your Mum, now. And your teachers too,” Joe told my sons. They stood, serious expressions on their faces. “And you get yourselves a good education. You listen to me boys. Without an education you ain’t nothing. End up like old Joe, here.”

My sons nodded their heads and shook Joe’s hand.  He took my hand in both of his, kissed it and smiled as we waved goodbye.


Good advice, huh? And probably not the advice you’d expect the guy selling the Big Issue to be doling out to your kids on a drizzly summer’s day.


All conversation turned to Joe, my curious sons firing questions I couldn’t yet answer.  Having lived most of my life in and around Bondi, I have come to see many homeless men and women make this place their refuge. And I’ve often wondered about the stories behind their troubled faces.

Joe fits many of the stereotypes that come to mind when you see him. He is an ex-con. He’s had more than his share of trouble with drugs and alcohol. And he’s certainly known homelessness.

“But really, love,” he asks, “what’s homelessness?

You know, you can feel just as homeless living in a house where you don’t feel safe as out on the streets.”

Joe knows what triggered his downfall. The descent into the kind of homeless we think of when we hear the word. The living on the streets kind. The turning to alcohol, drugs and crime kind. The kind where you lose all sense of your self worth. The kind that lands you in nothing but trouble. The kind that finds you in and out of jail. Nowhere to go. Nobody to care how you get there. Existing. But not living

Seventeen years ago last December Joe was released from Parklea Prison. He’d walked out prison gates several times before. But this time Joe knew he wasn’t going back. 

“Other times I left jail bloody worse than when I went in.”

But not this time.

“Something happened that last time,” Joe told me. “I was in the shower and something just... I dunno. I was locked up but something happened and I felt free.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled a little shyly as he waited for my reaction.

“Sounds hard to understand but something just came over me that day.”


Joe was looking at a lengthy stint inside, over twenty years.

“I’d been mixing with a bad lot, doing bad stuff.”

But the judge gave him one last chance.

“5 ½ to 7 ½ I got,” Joe said, shaking his head as if still surprised by this stroke of good luck.

Whilst five to seven years in a jail cell may seem like an awful long time to you and me, to Joe it was to be his redemption. After his shower block epiphany, Joe sought every opportunity to turn his miserable existence around.

“Got off the grog. Properly that time,“ Joe said. “Done heaps of rehabs in the past. None worked. You know why?” He shook his finger to reinforce the point. “I didn’t want them to. No bloody rehab can work unless you bloody want it to.”

That last time Joe wanted it to work. And so it bloody did.

Joe entered prison in 1989. When he walked out in December 1994 he had successfully completed rehab, had counselling and finished eighteen educational courses. He also got himself a job as a Sweeper, became the Head Sweeper and finally the Governor’s Sweeper.

If you know anything  about life inside, you’ll understand that Joe had become a model and trusted inmate. 


“What’s a dumb and stupid question?” Joe suddenly asked.

I thought hard.

“There isn’t one?” I finally offered.

Joe shook his head slightly. His eyes hinted at the determination of the man Joe is today.

“The question you never asked!” he said, shaking his finger like a wise schoolmaster. “It’s the question you never bloody asked!“ he repeated several times. “That’s what I always ask the kids. The ones I give talks to.”

When Joe left prison that last time he was asked by the authorities how to stop blokes like him coming back.

“They need another bloody chance, a job,” was one piece of advice Joe gave. “And they need to know what its like before they get there in the first bloody place.”


The new Joe decided to help others by sharing his story. And so for the past seventeen years he has visited schools and youth centres where he tells young people about his life.

“If I can stop one of them kids ending up like me, I’ve done something good.”

Each time Joe tells his audience to get an education. “Without it, you can’t get nowhere. Me, I didn’t make it past second year of High School. I was always in some kind of strife. Started with the grog when I was just thirteen.”

Joe ends his talks with his question. “So, what’s a dumb and stupid question, hey?”

Maybe, Joe says, unlike himself, maybe even one of those kids will ask the question that will save him.


After he left prison the last time, Joe lived in a halfway house, then a Housing Commission flat. “But I lost it ‘cos I had no bloody idea about paying rent and stuff.”

He was in a relationship for a couple of years but it ended. “My fault. Didn’t know how to do relationships.”

He looked me in the eye, shook his head. “It almost fell apart.”


Joe fell in with the wrong crowd again. But something pulled him away.

“I ended up at Surry Hills. Salvation Army place. That was ’99. And that’s really where it all changed for me.”

This is clearly a good memory.

“There was a bloke with one leg living there. Peter. Hoppy we called him. Because of the one leg. Well, Hoppy sold the Big Issue.”

Over chess one day, Peter/Hoppy suggested that Joe too get a job selling the Big Issue.

“He was me mate,” Joe says sadly. “Me five-eighth, you know?” Hoppy passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer.

“He changed my life, Hoppy did. I figures if a bloke with one leg could do it, what could I say?" 

Joe went to the Big Issue office with Hoppy and agreed to sign up for three months.

“That was thirteen years ago,” Joe said laughing. “Thirteen years. Didn’t reckon I’d last more than three months tops but I didn’t know what to say to me five-eighth no more. Had to give it a go at least. Best bloody thirteen years of my life it’s been.”


“The Big Issue is my life now.” It gave Joe that second chance he desperately needed.

“Without it, I wouldn’t have a life.”

Joe absolutely believes this and is fiercely loyal to the Big Issue. Watch out anyone who shows it disrespect.

“Who’s gonna give a bloke a job when the boss asks what you’ve been doing and your answer’s Corrective Services. As an inmate. Nobody’s gonna give you a bloody job then.”  Joe chuckled though he clearly finds no humour in the situation he himself faced many times.


For the past ten years, Joe has been selling the Big Issue in Bondi.

“Why Bondi?” I asked. “Why did you come back?”

Joe had already told me about the previous life he lived here. Pointing at the church on the corner of Wellington Street and Bondi Road, Joe told me he married there in 1985. He had a son, lived in a small flat. They left Bondi when the rent became too much.

“I wasn’t comfortable with meself,” Joe said sadly. “Wouldn’t know the first thing about relationships. It was all my fault it ended.“


“Why Bondi,” Joe smiled. “’Cos here I feel like part of a community. Accepted, you know? People’re nice to me. Even ask after me if I’m not around for a couple of days, like it matters.” He shakes his head in wonder as he says this.

“Nobody’s ever cared ‘bout me before. That’s for sure. Nobody ever cared nothing ‘bout old Joe before.”

Today, Joe lives in a Boarding House off Bondi Road. He has a roof over his head, a government pension. The Big Issue lets him live a normal life he says. The most normal life he’s ever lived. Buy a few things. Have a place to go, something to do.

“Been doing it thirteen years,” Joe repeated again with his biggest smile yet. I notice that Joe smiles frequently. And he likes people. Likes to have a chat. He gets such pleasure from the passersby who wave or stop to greet him. Many know him by name. He doesn’t seem to mind much whether they buy a copy of the Big Issue. Each greeting is returned with Joe’s special smile, a wave and a friendly word.

“Best bloody thirteen years of my life,” Joe repeated as he took my hand, kissed it and sent me on my way. 


Words: Alexis Aruch

Photography: Billy Plummer



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