Bill Simpson finds that Brendan and Sandra Nottle are rebels with a cause.
Many people see the Nottles as champions for the rights of the homeless people of Australia.
“We’re not comfortable with being tagged as heroes,” says Brendan. “Sandra and I are simply committed to seeing ruined lives rebuilt and I think homeless people actually add to the colour and fabric of our city. They need our support, not condemnation.”
When they first started their work in the Melbourne CBD 15 years ago it was difficult to get anyone to take the issue of homelessness seriously but as more people are found to be sleeping rough and begging on the streets of our capital cities it seems that almost everyone has an opinion now.
“That’s a really positive thing,” says Brendan. “Getting people to acknowledge some of the issues and the individual people within those issues has been a big part of our mission.” Brendan is so committed to raising awareness (and much-needed funds) that in September/October this year he is walking over 40 days and 40 nights (in true biblical proportions) to Canberra to meet with politicians about the 105,000 Australians who are homeless every day right across the country.
“The Salvos are the largest provider of homelessness services in Australia and we are stretched just trying to keep up. Sometimes it’s a really cold Melbourne winter’s night and you see that your team is working flat out to make a difference, and yet the numbers [of homeless] are not diminishing, they’re increasing. Every now and again that becomes a dark night of the soul, when you think: ‘Am I doing something wrong; am I missing something?’”
Brendan once had serious doubts about both God and The Salvation Army. He was 17 and in Year 12 in high school when his mother died. His father had previously passed away when he was only five. He was angry and blamed God. He walked away from The Salvation Army. A serious ‘God moment’ happened when he was wandering around Adelaide on a Sunday afternoon some years later and he happened upon a large Salvation Army rally where he encountered none other than the future General of The Salvation Army (and later his and Sandra’s friend and mentor) Eva Burrows.
Sandra Nottle, in contrast, is the child of Salvation Army officers (ministers). She has always had a stable relationship with God and her church all of her life. Sandra says of her mission: “There is a quote that says ‘I preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sometimes I use words’.”
Now Salvation Army officers, Majors Brendan and Sandra Nottle lead The Salvation Army Project 614 in the Melbourne CBD. They operate from 69 Bourke Street, where the Salvos have been operating continuously since 1894.
“I sometimes see myself as a bit of a rebel,” says Brendan, “a bit like the young William Booth, the Founder of The Salvation Army, engaging the established church of his day to get things done.”
“I’m more ‘the mother’ of 614,” says Sandra. She operates within the 614 building making sure everything is working as it should. “I’m pretty hands-on,” says Sandra, “making sure people seeking help are being looked after and that staff are safe.” She will take their place if a staff member is sick or on leave.
The Nottles and their team of 25 employees, and more than 1000 volunteers, run cafes providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for hundreds of homeless people every weekday. There are literally hundreds of life-changing stories coming from sitting around the tables.
Brendan and Sandra are sought out across the country and outside of Australia to share their passion and vision with other Salvos, church and community leaders. “We don’t expect people to replicate what we [do],” declares Brendan, “We just encourage them to [carry a] passion for the most vulnerable people in their community. [That might be people caught in] family violence, addiction, whatever is the issue in their area.”
The City of Melbourne awarded Brendan the prestigious title of Melburnian of the Year in 2013 because the work that the Nottles and their crew do for the city of Melbourne was seen to be essential to the fabric of the city. “It was a great honour and totally humbling,” says Brendan, “but it indicates to us that Melbourne cares about its most vulnerable people.”
“We couldn’t do what we do without our great team and the hundreds of volunteers who help us out every year,” says Sandra. “They come from corporate companies, they are retired people or people out there who want to give a few hours now and again to help make a difference.”
Activities at 614 include the daily cafe where tasty and nutritious three-course meals are provided free of charge, a food market, a friendship club, student fellowship, resident counsellors for addiction issues and a legal service.
The Project 614 ‘Street Teams’ work closely with the police, paramedics and the city council on a program called ‘Safe Streets’. Apart from keeping watch on the homeless at night, the team also assists vulnerable young people who may be at risk for a multitude of reasons.
Every Sunday morning the 614 community joins together in a church service, with the coffee pot at the ready. Sandra says, “Our Sunday morning is where it all comes together for us. We sing together, we pray together, we tell each other our stories of the week that’s been, and how God has helped us along the way. It gives us the focus and the power to face another challenging week.”
Snapshot of the street
It’s 9.30 pm Friday night and the 614 team is preparing for another eight-hour overnight shift on the streets of Melbourne. Major Brendan Nottle is the team leader. He has eight volunteers tonight. The team collects backpacks. Inside are bottles of water, Chupa Chups and rubber flip-flops for young women who become unsteady on their high heels. The team climbs on board a mini-bus and Brendan drops the volunteers off in teams of four in strategic locations.
Just after midnight, three young people attract his attention. They are swaying uncontrollably as they walk. In a flash, he’s out of the van checking if they are okay. And then there’s two young women sitting on a bench. He has concerns. He calls in one of his teams in that area to check the women.
Just after 2 am, Brendan takes a call that a young woman is in distress at a suburban railway station. She is having suicidal thoughts. He knows her. She is there with a friend. Railway transit police are with her. Major Nottle heads for the railway station
His phone rings. A man needs urgent financial assistance. Brendan makes arrangements to meet him in the city. The man also has health issues. Brendan drives him to hospital.
As Brendan leaves the hospital, his security radio reveals that a group of men are causing concern. One is carrying a machete, another what appears to be a sword. He calls his teams to warn them. Brendan spots a man affected by alcohol. He stops the van for a chat and offers water. There’s another call from one of his teams. A young woman is sitting on a bench and appears ill. The team calls paramedics. The medics check the woman, give her a vomit bag and ask The Salvation Army to take her back to her hotel. Brendan agrees. “We have to do this,” he says,“I don’t even want to think what might happen to her if she’s left alone in that state this time of the morning.”
It’s about 3 am when he reaches the railway station. He chats with the woman with suicidal thoughts. He thinks she should go to hospital for assessment. She appears agitated by the suggestion. “Hey,” he says to the woman. “How about we go to Maccas on the way?” They talk footy and family. The woman is starting to calm down. After Maccas, he gets her to hospital and settles her in for a few hours.
The team heads back into town. It’s way past 5 am. Time to go home. Major Nottle sleeps for a few hours, has breakfast with Sandra, catches up with his daughters, sleeps some more in the afternoon and heads out again at 9 o’clock on Saturday night for another shift.