Stephen Lunny: Community Worker

I came from New Zealand in ’98, and flew in off a plane. I arrived with $20 in my pocket, and a carton of cigarettes. And then I got a flat here.

I’ve lived here for 20 years and Surry Hills is my urban village. I think also initially it was my gay village and because I work in hospitality it’s got that hospitality village feel as well. I have always lived close to the city and close to where I work. I call it my “stroll in park” lifestyle. I leave work and I’m home in three minutes.

I think the change In Surry Hills is a bit sad however, I’m not one to linger and think about the good old days. It’s really sad that lower income people, artists, gay people, people who might be travelling through Sydney, hospitality workers in Surry Hills can’t live here now. So it’s not as colourful as it was. I think back to when I was a gay man partying on Oxford Street. There are all these fantastic stories of what used to happen down the back laneways, fun colourful things that happened. But those laneways are filled with families now. I miss the seediness, the trashiness. I miss seeing it.

At the same time what’s happened because of gentrification is very pretty.

Community tends to happen more in public housing where I live because we live there long term. You guys move and put up fences. We stay there for a lifetime however, to think that public housing is a community that gets on is a myth. I’m a community worker living in housing and I see tensions. There are also the “moral high ground” housing people who think they are better than others. There are people with mental health issues there who some people have no understanding or patience for. They just want them to go somewhere else. When drugs do get out of hand and it does turn into a dealers’ den however, that’s problematic for anyone.

When I was a young gay man, I was partying hard and things got out of control. I guess I’d have called myself an unresolved person. So I got out of town, hitchhiked up north. It was the best time of my life. I lived with a Buddhist drug and alcohol counsellor and he helped a lot of people come to terms with themselves. That became my home away from home and I still visit there.

I once turned up to be part of an Easter pagan festival with the Radical Faeries. The Radical Faeries are an open, pagan, rural, gay community. I did the spirit animal thing where they burn white sage and they take you on the journey where you imagine you are an animal. But I could not see any of it. You are supposed to imagine you are going down a river or forest. And then I realised it was because I was up in the sky. So I thought I was an eagle. An eagle is a good thing to get. Then when I got down to Sydney, the first house I went to visit, there was a paper mache kite eagle in the room. Sometimes things can be reassuring. So that was good.

What do I think is the most important thing in life? Meaningful connections with people and also doing something meaningful. I’d say to my younger self, to not beat myself up. Embrace shamelessness. I was brought up a Catholic with the whole guilt thing. So there is a liberty there in being shameless.

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