Hotel homeless

by Jim Hearn

SO I'M STANDING in front of a six-burner stove at the Winsome Hotel in Lismore. After leaving Rae's on Watego's as head chef and writing High Season: a memoir of heroin and hospitality (Allen & Unwin, 2012), as Chopper might say, I've really landed on my…knees. Not that anyone here cares how I'm feeling about cooking again.

The Winsome Hotel is currently operating as a homeless shelter. It's a neat idea: strip the kegs, beer taps, and pokies out of an underperforming hotel and turn it into a space to provision hospitality to the homeless. It was hard not to say yes to participating in such a great initiative. The thing I immediately responded to is that the Winsome represents a civic response to homelessness. It is not being funded by a church or a religious order, which is not to say religious institutions don't do a great deal of good work for the homeless, but I didn't want to participate in a charity. The men at the Winsome don't need charity: they need a place to sleep, access to a kitchen, a bathroom, and a space to socialise in and relax. Those things underscore what hospitality means, and the Winsome is a unique civic response to people who find themselves without a place to call home. Besides, for me, it's a one-night stand. How bad can it be?

In my twenties, I spent time on the street, days and weeks without a place to call home. What becomes apparent very quickly when you don't have a roof over your head is that your body continues to function in the same way it did when you had a place to call home. Having a body can be a real drag. It requires things that can be difficult to care about, or provide for, if you have too much going on inside your mind. Something I've noticed about the crew at the Winsome, particularly amongst the new arrivals, is that there's a split between the mind with all its plans, ideas, conflicts, voices, and dreams, and the body with all its rudimentary, functionary needs. It's like…everything would be so easy if I didn't have to meet the needs of my body.

The residents who have been at the Winsome for months rather than weeks discover that their minds and the bodies rejoin. Most of the men are super-relaxed. And this is a shelter for men: eighteen of them in eighteen separate rooms. Four of them have agreed to help me cook tonight for what has become dinner for a hundred and fifty covers. No one else is a chef. No one else has spent time in a commercial kitchen, which probably means they have a higher IQ than me, but which also means I've got to run this gig with a bunch of cowboys. They all look good standing around in striped aprons sharpening knives, but that isn't going to cut it when the dinner bell sounds. As I keep telling them…

'Two words, boys.'

'Yes, Chef?' they yell.

They're learning; it's not all bad, but it's not exactly fine dining either.


IT'S EASY TO fall into the trap when thinking about hospitality to imagine it solely in the context of the hospitality industry. Hospitality is practised in the private, social, and commercial domains, and most parents have a critical understanding about what it means to be a host in the private domain to seemingly ever-needy children-guests. I have spent the majority of my working life in the commercial domain of hospitality. It is a vast beast that does not mean any one thing, but which can be understood as being built around a paradox that not enough operators come to terms with. Hospitality infers generosity: the generosity of a warm welcome, a private room, beds, bathrooms, tables, chairs and a kitchen. And industry demands a profit. Getting the balance right between being a generous host and making a living is never easy. Too many operators in the commercial domain of hospitality never get the first part right, which dictates that hosts have to at least create the illusion of generosity before they worry about counting the coin. This notion of hospitality as generosity can be thought of as the quality of hospitableness. Not all hosts possess that quality, at least not to the same degree that they desire getting rich, and guests are the first to notice such a lack. It is something we seem hardwired to discern…how generous is my host? And rightly so: Most people of a certain age discover that life demands we spend a large portion of our time making other people happy: whether those other people are our children, spouses, bosses, partners, or colleagues. When we get the opportunity to be a guest, it offers at least the prospect of pleasure. The entire hospitality industry is built on the premise that because hospitality is valuable and requires hard labour to provision, people are prepared to pay for it. We want to be guests. We want our hosts to be generous, particularly when we are paying them for our pleasures.

Jacques Derrida, the infamous French philosopher who is perhaps best known for inventing the concept of deconstruction, also wrote a book called Of Hospitality (Stanford University Press, 2000). To suggest it is not an easy read is a generous critique. In that book, he argues that an unconditionally generous hospitality is impossible. The reason it is impossible is because all the laws, customs, beliefs, and attitudes about what hospitality is or should be precludes hosts from offering such a welcome in the first place. We are culturally conditioned beings first, and warm and welcoming hosts second. Derrida also argues that because tolerance is first and foremost a Christian charity – a charity whereby the host is always the host and the guest is always the guest – hospitality can be understood as a secular and civic response to uninvited guests. Tolerance, then, is a Christian charity because tolerance is always at the discretion of the host. The host is always the one with the power to either provision or not provision, to tolerate or not to tolerate. Hospitality is different from tolerance in how hospitality relies on an understanding about how we are all, at different times, both guest and host: child and parent, traveller and local, stranger and friend.

One of the things that becomes quickly apparent when working with people who find themselves homeless is that our cities and towns treat homeless bodies as uninvited guests that require, at best, tolerance rather than hospitality. The vast majority of homeless shelters in Australia are funded, staffed, and 'understood' as Christian charities first, and places that provision hospitality second. The Winsome Hotel in Lismore is an exception to that general rule. The Winsome also possesses the great benefit of having the architecture of a hotel. Hotels are designed and built around the idea of how to make a profit out of provisioning hospitality. Hotels are prime examples of commercial and civic architecture. Which is not to suggest that religious charities provision hospitality to their homeless guests inside churches or other religious architecture, but rather, to highlight how 'industrial' notions of hospitality can help us, as a secular and civil society, come to terms with how best to provision hospitality to uninvited guests. These uninvited guests may be homeless citizens or they may be refugees. They might be people with a mental illness, alcohol or addiction issues, survivors of physical and sexual abuse, recent divorcees, rebellious teenagers, or people who find themselves bankrupt. A willingness to understand what the human body requires in order to survive should not only be a 'charitable' concern. As citizens, we must take some ownership about how we welcome, serve and understand the uninvited guests on the streets of our cities and towns, and also at our borders.

I have been quite fascinated as a resident of Lismore watching the evolution of the Winsome go from being a working hotel, to a hotel that went broke, to a hotel operating as a homeless shelter. The space speaks to my research into transgression, addiction, and hospitality. Homelessness is a difficult social problem to both define and treat, not least because not everyone who is homeless wants to be 'locked up' inside four walls. There is, at times, a freedom and perhaps even a romance for some who make a life for themselves 'outside' the walls of whatever having a home might mean. That freedom and romance is obviously not everyone's experience of life on the street though, and many residents of the Winsome have complex issues to do with chronic pain, addiction, and mental illness, as well as being homeless. Those issues combined create a much truer sense of the complexity of homelessness than one issue taken in isolation. In that way, being homeless is brought about by a multitude of very complex social and personal issues. I want to argue that hospitality can be thought of as a 'solution' to how we might initially treat all these problems.

Hospitality addresses the needs of the human body: a place to sleep, something to eat, something to drink, in an environment that is safe rather than threatening. What it means to address the needs of the human body is a great many different things in a great many different cultural settings. What lies at the heart of every hospitable exchange though, is a willingness for people to function as hosts to both invited and uninvited guests. A stranger at the door need not always be a chilling, fearful experience. A 'bum' bedding down in a bus shelter need not be thought of only in the context of an individual who 'lacks' housing. None of us asked to be born, and none of us can determine our fate as young children. We are dependent upon other people meeting our body's needs for the first several years of our life. If other people are not prepared to meet those needs, we die. While most of us struggle to adequately provide for our own children, both emotionally and financially, we need to not lose sight of the fact that inhospitable hosts, in the form of deviant or poorly equipped parents and carers, are never the fault of the child. While we always want the poorly-looked-after child to overcome their difficult start, to outgrow their reliance on their poorly functioning parent/hosts and prosper on their own terms, history suggests that such a utopia is some time off. In the meantime, we can expect to continue to see uninvited guests with a wide range of problematic personal issues in our bus shelters and at our borders, under carriageways, and in our railway stations.


THE CYNICS WERE the dropouts of Ancient Greece. The most famous dropout philosopher of that time, from 404–323 BC, was Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes lived in a tub, which he rolled onto its side, and wedged against a stairwell on a main street in Athens. Alexander the Great, who was alive at the same time as Diogenes, and who is famous for conquering the known world of that time, said that if he could be anyone other than Alexander, he would be Diogenes. It was Diogenes who is attributed with first stating, 'I am a citizen of the world'. Diogenes was not only a willfully homeless bum, he was also a great philosopher who coined the notion of cosmopolitanism. Being a Cynic in Ancient Greece was different to being cynical today. The meaning of the word has changed, and the Cynics of Ancient Greece had a positive belief in virtue, which was expressed in how they argued and understood the tensions and differences between true virtues and false virtues. All social conventions, such as distinctions between what is yours and mine, between what is public and private, or between being naked and clothed, raw and cooked, were nonsense to the Cynics. Diogenes also had contempt for the implied distinctions between what it meant to be Greek and what it meant to be a foreigner. It was from this virtuous notion, of there being no true differences between human beings from one place and human beings from another place, that the concept of being a citizen of the world began in what we think of as Western philosophy.

Critically, when we think about Diogenes' contribution to philosophical thought, we need to understand the aims of his 'homelessness', and why he took to 'living like a dog'. Cynic, in Ancient Greek, means literally, 'like a dog'. And because Diogenes made the decision to live like a dog and to actively flout the social conventions of his day, which he saw as being driven by 'false' virtues, his homelessness and his nakedness, his public masturbation and his eating food scraps off the ground, became an awkward mirror to others in what was the greatest city in the world. Put simply, the way he lived made others reflect on, and question, the virtues that underpinned their daily rituals and aspirations.


MANY OF THE people I have met during my short residency at the Winsome have a critical appreciation about how their 'homeless' bodies elicit negative or judgmental responses in others. They understand that many people who are going about their busy lives wish that homeless people didn't exist; that 'the homeless' could somehow be swept someplace out of sight. Part of the reason we feel that way when we see homeless bodies, or bums hogging the seat in the bus shelter or at the railway station, is because it forces us to question our actions. It draws attention to our fine clothes, our perfume and aftershave, our clean fingernails and underwear. It also calls attention to our seeming lack of choice in what we are doing. For the vast majority of people who are busy with careers, ambition is a double-edged sword. We strive to achieve career goals, and we also need to strive in order to keep paying the bills. The homeless don't have any bills, and they don't care about debts or assets or liabilities or profits or clean underwear or perfume. They don't care about those things because they don't have to, and in that light, they are free of many of the strictures and pressures of modern life. And sometimes, it is very easy to resent the bum hogging the seat that my hard-working arse longs to sit down on.

I would never advocate for a world where the homeless are invisible on the streets. Such a utopia, as The Truman Show (1998) makes plain, is a world we quickly become desperate to escape from. It's nice for a minute, or a weekend getaway, but there's something lacking from all the shiny surfaces and clean facades. What I am advocating, though, is that we develop a more sophisticated understanding about how practices of hospitality can function as a solution to homelessness. To do that, we need to think more critically about what hospitality means, and about how we might create spaces of hospitality that overlap notions of the private, the social, and the commercial. We can draw on the best of what we understand about hospitality from the commercial domain in order to solve complex social issues for individual citizens.

We celebrate the spaces and performances of commercial hospitality in our culture like never before. As a society, we seemingly have an enormous regard for what the best of commercial hospitality can provision. The provisioning of commercial hospitality has taken on the vernacular of the creative, the artistic, and even the sublime. Such is our pleasure at being the guest. We will pay a handsome premium to be waited on and served, to be cooked for and cleaned up after. We want to know the cotton thread-count of our hotel sheets and how much to tip the concierge. We want views, fine dining, champagne, and TV shows about how to cook like never before. We want to be the most sophisticated hosts and the most gracious guests. We understand, in a more complex way than ever before, the value of hospitality.

Given that understanding, and given our willingness to engage with what hospitality means, I want to propose that hospitality can be understood as a technology, or a set of tools, that as a civil and secular society we can deploy in an industrial way to address the needs of the homeless and the uninvited guests amongst us on our streets and at our borders. I propose high-rise hotels for the homeless rather than dormitories that have been adapted from disused factories or old church halls. I propose those high-rise hotels function like any other hotel in the commercial domain of hospitality, except for the need to make a profit. They don't need to be free, but the payment should be token rather than reflect or compete with conventional hotels. And they don't need to be two-star hotels rather than four-star. Whenever I talk about this with people they are quick to critique the idea in two ways: they either point out that the hotel/s will be overrun, both by the homeless amongst us and by travellers seeking a free night's lodging; and that this hotel idea does not address deeper structural problems that lead people into homelessness in the first place.

In responding to the first critique, that a Hotel Homeless will be overrun by too much need and by cheapskate travellers, I argue that backpackers and jetsetters are people too, that we are all citizens of the world who find, at various times, our need for a bed, a meal, and a shower beyond our capacity to afford. Homeless people are generally people who once had work, careers, families, cars, mortgages, and iPhones. Homeless people are sometimes women with children who are escaping from an abusive situation; teenagers fighting with parents; lovers tossed out onto the streets; the under-employed becoming unemployed. They are often people like you and me who find themselves, often surprisingly, unable to meet their immediate needs. If a backpacker or a tourist finds themselves either robbed or bereft of cash, why shouldn't they join the queue with the winos and the unlucky? To extend that argument is to agree with the idea that yes, there will be a great deal of demand for a free, or very inexpensive hotel, but we can be creative about how, as a society, we can afford such an initiative.

In regards to the second critique, that Hotel Homeless is not a solution to deeper structural problems that often have causal links as to why people find themselves on the streets, I couldn't agree more. It's not meant to be a solution to those structural problems. Hotel Homeless is not an argument about access to education, equal rights, or about how it is that some people have access to modes of privilege and power that others do not. It is an idea about deploying hospitality as an industrial and civic technology to address the needs of a disparate set of bodies that find themselves without a place to call home. The idea is that people stay a night and check out in the morning. Each day is a new day and each night is a new night. In order for the hotel to function as other commercial hotels do, rooms need to be cleaned, dining rooms need to be reset, and buildings maintained. This is an idea about providing a room for the night rather than addressing long-term issues with individual guests, or complex social problems that lead people into addiction, abusive relationships, mental illness, or alcoholism. Those are issues that many of the guests will no doubt embody. I also want to suggest that a proportion of our population will always embody these issues and that there is no 'perfect' world where privilege is shared equally and good looks, wit, and charm are available for the taking. Perhaps most critically of all though, it is necessary to understand that the vast majority of people who find themselves without a place to call home often don't stay that way forever.


AS FOR FUNDING such a cultural solution to homelessness, I see no reason why any number of Hotel Homelesses couldn't operate wherever a TAFE college currently trains people in the fine art of provisioning hospitality. A great deal of waste is generated in many hospitality training schools. While 'open nights' and 'training days' bring the family and friends of trainees into these public training facilities, those days are the exception rather than the norm and it makes a great deal more sense to train chefs and waiters, concierges, and hotel managers in a fully operational Hotel Homeless than at a campus devoid of guests. Things don't have to be perfect, but why not combine multiple social needs, like workplace training and crisis accommodation, into one architectural space, rather than build and fund places that seek to 'imitate' or 'emulate' the real thing?

A high-rise Hotel Homeless could have whole floors set aside for the broader education of the hospitality industry trainees: classrooms and lecture theatres; computer labs and libraries. Other floors in this high-rise solution to homelessness could house government services that aim to address the structural issues that create homelessness: mental health counsellors and addiction specialists, women's health specialists and child support agencies. While I see these 'additions' to the hotel as an 'added extra' rather than strictly necessary, envisioning such an architectural space allows us to do something that is very important: it allows us to see the fundamental role that hospitality plays in how we address all these complex issues. While there has been a trend to close down institutional care for citizens with complex issues to do with mental health, addiction, and crisis care, if we are prepared to understand how those institutions provision hospitality, as well as a wide variety of various specialists' care, it makes sense to change how we both comprehend and build these 'institutions'. There seems little reason to construct a whole bunch of separate asylums or rehabs, detox clinics, or centres for crisis accommodation, which all, on one level, do a remarkably similar thing: provision hospitality. Given that we have excellent understandings about how to design, build and manage high-rise hotels, as well as expert training centres that currently teach people how to work in the commercial domain of hospitality, it seems a missed opportunity not to combine these already existing government services into a 'hotel school' with specialist floors set aside for various professionals to address the guests' more complex needs. If we are prepared to separate how we look after the body of our guests, by providing a room, a bed, a bathroom, and food, and how we deal with our guests other more complex needs, we can design buildings that primarily provision hospitality, and secondly, allow various specialists access to their clients. Based on my own lived experience of addiction and homelessness, and from conversations and interviews with others who have had shared similar experiences, the provisioning of hospitality is often the first and most critical solution to other more complex problems such as addiction, alcoholism, and mental health.

I also think this notion of building hotels for the homeless can be extended in order to better understand how we deal with a rapidly ageing population. While there is a foreboding sense that the ageing of the population is leading to a crisis in the 'aged-care' industry, if we are prepared to remake our understanding about how aged-care is primarily about provisioning hospitality, it seems we should be thinking about how to train more hospitality workers, and how to find ways to pay those workers a reasonable wage, rather than thinking about the need to build hundreds of 'nursing homes'. Again, people who move into aged-care facilities have complex needs – it is not enough to only provision hospitality – but for all of us, our day revolves around our body's requirement for regular meals, sleep, and security, as well as opportunities to socialise with others, and the hospitality industry does those things better than any other industry.

Many people that I discuss these ideas with offer me a wry smile and wish me the best with creating utopia. Again, utopia is not what I'm proposing. I'm merely pointing out how highly we already value what commercial hospitality does, and to think about ways we might provision hospitality as a technology to deal with complex social problems. Critically, this is not a new 'socialist' dream; it is about applying commercial practices of hospitality to better treat complex social problems. What never ceases to amaze me about these debates is how highly prized a thing hospitality is when we think about providing it for others. And paradoxically, how cheaply we insist the hospitality industry provision generosity to me. Why is it so difficult for a country as prosperous as Australia to find ways to provision hospitality for its homeless citizens and for its sometimes troublesome, transgressive, and uninvited guests? Part of the reason is because we work so damn hard to provide those things for ourselves that we become resentful when others are seen to put less effort into acquiring them as we are. I'm not convinced that these spaces of hospitality would be overrun with an endless stream of needy bodies though, and the reason I believe that is because charities and homeless shelters, as well as crisis accommodation centres and short-term care facilities, already function in our cities and towns in such a way that seeks to address these needs.

Charities have become increasingly adept at co-opting the practices, technologies and vernacular of commercial enterprises in how they go about the 'business' of provisioning charity. From how they raise funds to how they structure their boards and ruling bodies, charities are becoming understood within our modern secular societies as very large institutions that determine who is worthy of their largesse. Critically, the largesse they provision always operates within the context of tolerance and Christian charity. That is problematic in how many citizens who may require what various charities have to give away, have no truck with any religious belief or the notion of an all-seeing, all-knowing god. The ultimate 'solution' that many of our homeless citizens, our addicted youth, and our mentally ill are searching for, is where to park my body for the night. The answer to that question should not leave the offending citizen with a debt of gratitude to any particular god or religious charity. It is not a moral lack to need a bed for the night.


THE REASON I am so passionate about governments spending taxpayer dollars on designing and building hotels for our homeless citizens, and training workers to function in the commercial domain of hospitality as part of how those buildings function, is because of how my life has played out. If life for all of us is caught between the tensions of fate and will, between how our gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic situation is determined for us at birth and what we make of that positioning, so too life is for all of us a daily procession of needing to eat, drink, and sleep. And these things, which hospitality addresses, are not an addition to what we need, but describe our base requirements for survival.

When I first left home at fifteen and began work as an apprentice chef, I quickly developed an appreciation about how working in the hospitality industry might help me to address those needs. Chefs have no problem finding enough to eat and drink. That is no small thing for people with an unstable home life. Working in hotels, rather than in restaurants, also honed an appreciation about how hotels had rooms with showers and beds, privacy and bathrooms, unlike restaurants, which revolve around a kitchen and dining room. Again, for a young person who puts a premium on using drugs and alcohol, the hospitality industry can seem like a logical and even comforting place to call home.

The aim of having me cook dinner tonight at the Winsome is to have me oversee an evening whereby the 'homeless' residents get to function as hosts for a hundred and fifty invited guests. There's a whole bunch of interested Lismore citizens who are turning up tonight to experience a little hospitality. People are keen to see what has happened to the Winsome; find out what has become of this formerly busy and graciously built hotel. It's widely known in the Lismore community that the place has become a shelter for the homeless, and for some, that's a great shame: a failure of industry and a failure of the city council to take the necessary steps to make the space work commercially. For many others, particularly for those who have put their money and their time into making this place thrive as a homeless men's shelter, as well as a soup kitchen that provisions one-dollar lunches seven days a week, the Winsome is a great, if unlikely, success story. The Winsome is proof that a hotel for the homeless can and does work. It is a space where the commercial, the social, and the private domains of hospitality have coalesced into something unique. It took good people with a lot of agency to get the Winsome up and running: I am not one of those people. I am a blow-in, a transitory guest who gets to stand by a six-burner stove with a bunch of reprobate kitchen-hands…and wonder again, at the meanings and the possibilities of hospitality.



The Home Project is a collaborative research activity between researchers in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, Lismore, and Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA). The project aims to research and connect with people around issues of home, place and belonging in the Northern Rivers region, using creative arts process and production as a method of conducting Community Engaged Research.

In 2013, we conducted creative arts workshops at the Winsome Hotel. Four creative arts practitioners, engaging with residents and clientele of the Winsome Hotel, facilitated workshops. I was engaged for two month-long residencies, firstly as a writer, and secondly as a chef.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 44: Cultural Solutions © Copyright Griffith University & the author.