The Blue House: A bookshop with a story

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WORDS || Yehuda Aharon

The Blue House: sounds like a beachside resort, right? Well it isn’t, not when Simon has you up at seven a.m. to run thirty-five laps around the block before your shift at the café. But nobody is making these kids stay. They all do it for themselves, knowing it will give them an opportunity to right the wrongs of their pasts. The Blue House is a café, a bookstore, a car-wash and a refuge for troubled kids trying to set their lives straight again.

I am sitting outside with Simon Robinson, founder of The Blue House, chatting about how he got started. With him is Gianluca, AKA Gibby, the first kid to be brought into the House. He doesn’t speak much. The Blue House used to be a homeless shelter and the operational base for Community Medics, an organisation that provided medical assistance to the homeless. Then the House entered a second chapter of its life, running a social enterprise to assist with funding and provide training for the residents to gain jobs and a new start.

But the homeless shelter/business plan never worked out. One day, Simon saw police harassing a young boy as he walked past the House. They told him the boy was nothing but trouble. They told him about the growing youth problem in Parramatta. Simon knew the boy – he and his gang hung out around the corner at the abandoned Jaycar building. So he decided to approach him, and told the boy that if he wanted to straighten his life out he should turn up at the café at nine a.m. Monday morning. That troubled kid is now sitting in front of me, quiet at times, vibrant joker at others, he has now quit alcohol, drugs and now wants to study software design.

It isn’t very long before a homeless man stops by to say hello. He looks about seventy, suffering from excessive skin damage and a bad leg. He isn’t introduced to me but, Simon refers to him as ‘Ray’. Within a few minutes Gibby fixes him up with a sleeping bag, sunscreen and some razors. Ray uses the cafe bathroom to shave and comes out for a chat, telling us about the time when somebody told him he only looked forty. He then explains that his wife of thirty-four years died, which forced him onto the streets. Simon isn’t shying away from the hard questions, asking Ray where he is camping these days, whether he has been to a doctor lately and if he wants to leave his next of kin details with The Blue House. Later Simon tells me that the spots on Ray’s nose are cancerous.

Before the conversation with Ray is up, it is lunchtime and the café workers come out. I now have one more for company. Ahmed is eighteen. He did not finish school and used to be in Gibby’s gang but now says he loves science and history. Ahmed asks me questions about the speed of light, the Big Bang, and Jewish history; he assumes that because I am at university I would have the answers, but he already knows more than I might ever know about those subjects. At least he is surrounded by almost 7,000 books with more answers on every topic he can think of.

…nobody is making these kids stay. They all do it for themselves, knowing it will give them an opportunity to right the wrongs of their pasts.

The kids at The Blue House, whether residents or not, are each encouraged to pursue their educational aims. The turnaround, Simon tells me, is phenomenal, but they still have four kids without a Year Ten education equivalent and “a seventeen-year-old girl with the education of a fifth-grader”. To deal with this they provide a place of stability and support outside of their homes. School teachers come in once a week to assist them with their education and the kids each study Cert II TAFE courses to bring them up to standard. Alongside that, they are also developing business skills and are provided with networking opportunities with the community, with whom they formulate their own career goals and plan ways to achieve them.

“All the kids here are coming from backgrounds of trouble with the police, court matters, substance abuse issues, some of them are straight up homeless, or with a history of abuse in the family.” But The Blue House does not just operate for the residents and workers, it is also a safe refuge for anybody in distress, a place they can count on when in trouble. “We had one last night, gosh, it was like ten-thirty at night, knocking on the door. Sixteen-year-old female. Heavily intoxicated. She was crying, filthy, covered in dirt. A group of kids abused her and then took off with her shoes and phone. This was the closest place where she knew she would be safe.”

When I ask how he makes the ends meet his brow furrows. “We get no government support at all” he tells me. “It is made through the social enterprise and support of local businesses”. Any remaining costs come from his own pocket, “I go out and work casually to help keep the doors open. I do medical work for Parramatta Council, I do blood and alcohol testing for them as well. So all the events run by the Council, that need a trained medic, utilise Community Medics.” Simon is now the only permanent member of Community Medics.

“We don’t do the outreach work anymore, but if anybody needs help they can come here and we’ll fix them up.” Still, the kids are all doing basic courses with State Health, and co-ordinate cleanups of regular shoot-up spots to keep the area safe for both the homeless and the public.

Soon Simon has to leave, Ahmed has an appointment with a councillor, while Patrick and Danielle have lunch scheduled with the Parramatta Eels. So I am left to scour the bookshelves and chat with the kids. Gibby finally starts talking and I meet Luke while they all have a cigarette. Patrick shows me his phone background, which reads ‘Straight Outta Dubbo’ in the same typefont as the Straight Outta Compton film poster. Luke tells me that most of the kids here had B & E (break and enter) on their records. Most of them just did it because they were bored or hungry.

That is also the real reason why they continue to come back to The Blue House, there is something to do every day. Even though it can sometimes be tough, they really want to get out of where they once were. As for me there is plenty of things to do at The Blue House, I have made friends with an incredible bunch of kids, who are very friendly. I have picked up two books, one is a rare translation by Der Nister, a Nineteenth Century Yiddish author and a piece of creative non-fiction by American intellectual and tough guy Norman Mailer. On top of all this, I supported a great cause.