Song of Hope

By Arna Radovich

One man's vision is turning around the lives of some of Sydney's street kids.

Searching unsuccessfully for a doorbell outside the elderly terrace in Darlinghurst, I finally resort to shouting loudly through the heavy duty security grille until a face appears to unlock the door. I have a few minutes in which to survey my surroundings while I wait for Phil Nunn, the initiator of an innovative music program for unemployed and homeless young people called Sounds of the Street (SOTS). The setting is certainly nothing flash, but judging by results it serves its purpose well.

Phil soon appears and enthusiastically launches into a presentation of SOTS. Passionate and articulate about his work, he preaches very convincingly about his concerns for homeless young people and the long term unemployed and what he sees are the advantages of "creative methodologies" such as SOTS. "To be quite honest, I'm quite embarrassed about all of this, because I feel like I'm stating the bleeding obvious" he says. "I'm doing this because I enjoy it and because I believe in it." He started playing music at sixteen and says that "music and guitar playing became a social tool for me in my teens" and also an important means of developing his own sense of identity. "Everybody's saying what a great idea and it just doesn't feel that new to me, but everybody else perceives it as being new."

Phil's "great idea" is a music program which aims "to provide disadvantaged young people with a different forum and a different way of working on their issues and their problems". The program runs for twenty weeks, and is presently funded by the Australian Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) and run by the Sydney City Mission (SCM). It involves young people in a comprehensive music course which assists them to write lyrics, introduces them to various instruments and teaches them how to use recording equipment which they utilise to produce their own CD. They also get to play live at their graduation concert.

While not presented as a therapy program as such, Phil says it works very successfully as far as "achieving goals on a personal level". One of the major problems for most of these kids says Phil, is non-existent self-esteem, no motivation and poor literacy and numeracy skills. The program seeks to address these in a totally different direction from conventional schooling.

What is interesting, Phil tells me, is how "peer pressure" works as a positive within the program. There is a set of ten rules which govern course behaviour such as "no drugs or alcohol", "no aggression or violence" and "treat everyone with respect". The kids are mostly very enthusiastic and not very tolerant towards other kids who are disruptive, or who turn up stoned and unable to actively participate.

Phil, 39, grew up in Camden Town, UK arriving in Australia almost six years ago after extensive travels through Europe and America. After a couple of years teaching psychology at TAFE in England, his passion for music won out and he spent most of the 80s working as a professional musician. Finding common ground with the kids through the music is a factor in establishing a trusting and safe environment for them to open up if they want to. For the kids themselves the music focus provides that all-important sense of belonging.

Phil says when he came to Australia in 1990 he was interested in getting back into psychology and having more of a home-life, putting down roots after "spending half his life in the back of a smelly van", touring. "I didn't want to be 40 years old and playing in a bar band" he says. The idea of the music as therapy evolved from Phil's experiences playing music in jails and mental hospitals and just watching patients interacting and "banging on saucepans and things". That "whole incredible tribal thing" he says, made him realise this was something he wanted to pursue.

Initially he enroled in a volunteer telephone counselling course run by the SCM and started off working one night a week. He then got the opportunity to run a 12 week self-esteem/personal development course for street kids at Crows Nest TAFE. Phil and Steve Bull, who is the co-ordinator of SOTS, decided to introduce a music element by taking guitars in and as Phil puts it, "just mucking around". "We realised the kids were very enthusiastic about it, but it was still another year or so before we actually formalised it" he said.

The lyrics the kids write are often in basic black, although the occasional love ballad makes an appearance. The songs deal with alienation, abuse, depression, drugs and sadness, they deal with a reality all too familiar to many of these young people and they provide the means of expressing the inexpressible. Down in Studio One the guitars duel. I ask one of the boys what he thinks of the course. "Great, yeah, great" he says.

I asked Phil about the high incidence of male suicide in Australia and also the disproport-ionate ratio of boys on the street. Phil says in his experience "that the boys have a lower tolerance of frustration, they have less social contact with other boys and they find it harder to express their feelings in a direct, articulate, verbal way. They are very ready to punch and scream and shout, but to really say I'm sad, I'm hurt, I'm angry, I'm depressed, is a very hard thing for them."

Upstairs I talk to Natalie who spends at least ten minutes answering my question, "What do you think of the course?" She tells me how wonderful it is, how much it's done for her, how much it's helped her with her own problems. A perfect illustration of Phil's point. According to Phil the whole western cultural promotion of men having to be the strong one is "exacerbated because there is a whole isolation factor going on." He defines "homeless" in much broader terms than just not having somewhere permanent to live.

"The young people I see usually have somewhere to sleep, in a refuge or with friends or in a squat, but what they don't have is a support network, a family to take care of them, a group of close friends or anywhere safe where they can keep their stuff." The kids move around a lot and because they don't have permanent relationships they have to keep everything in and not share their feelings. It is to this lack of "belonging" that Phil keeps returning.

"If you ask these young people what they really, really, want," Phil says, "they all want food, a bed, showers, clothes, things like that, but what they really want beneath all that is a relationship or a series of trusting relationships, someone to support them, to be there for them in a non-judgmental way."

He sees education from an early age as the most important means of effecting change, "I'd like to see programs in schools for little kids, five and six years old, teaching them right when they're in that malleable stage what it means to be male and what it means to be female, trying to break down some of those stereotypes."

I asked Phil his definition of success. "You scale down your concepts of success. If you can get an intravenous drug user to use clean needles, that's success, if you can get someone who is prostituting to use a condom, that's success, if you can get someone to open up about their abusive past, that's success." Sometimes he says you see a young person really turn their life around, but it doesn't happen overnight.

How does Phil manage to have a life separate from such an emotionally fraught and all consuming job? The answer is there's no easy answer. "The currency of transaction with these young people is emotion" he says, and some counsellors burn out within six months. It's very important, he says, to have back-up and Phil uses "supervision" both for himself and other counsellors as a means of de-briefing, talking over ideas and sharing some of the stresses. He says doing this sort of work constantly forces you to confront yourself and "sometimes that really gets to you".

The advantages of programs such as Sounds of the Street are obvious. Phil says however, that he is continually placed in the position of having to hard-sell the program in pursuit of the funds necessary to keep it running. DEET funding runs out in November. Thankfully he says the SCM has agreed to fund the program until June/July next year which will give him more time to find other avenues of funding.

Phil says he also wants to make the program more mobile and accessible and he's working on how to achieve this. He believes it would be useful as a means of tackling the youth suicide issue and also for "problem kids" still in the school system. He gets quite emotional telling me about some of the kids he encountered on the workshops.

"These kids didn't have a chance, you really saddened me". Some of their rap sheets read like, "36 counts of break and enter, seven counts of grievous bodily harm, two attempted murder, rape, car theft, arson, and we're like shit, what have we got ourselves in for and then the kids walk in and they're all about up to my couldn't put the two together". In this age of cynicism the thing that strikes you most about Phil is that he seems to genuinely care and to not be afraid to show it.

The Sounds of the Street program is certainly well deserving of continued government funding, most importantly because it actually works. The proof is in the words of the kids themselves, "It made me feel like I'd achieved something, I'd never finished anything before this and thought I was dumb at school"; "It helped me prove I can do something and not stay the way I was..."; "It's improved the way I feel about myself by 110%..."; "It has given me a sense of happiness that I can't put into words...".

Phil Nunn has co-written a training manual which explains how to set up a Sounds of the Street music program and these are available for purchase. Anyone interested in further information, donations of musical expertise or musical equipment please contact Phil at the Creative Youth Initiative Centre - Phone: (02) 9361 5727, Fax: (02) 9361 5672;


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