When Chris Cleary landed a job working in television, she thought it would be the start of a “fun and exciting” new challenge.
She was wrong.
The 48-year-old Sydney medic’s role involved waiting around on the sets of Australia’s biggest shows – including The X Factor, The Bachelor and Australia’s Got Talent – just in case someone got injured.
“Take The Bachelor,” says Chris. “One morning I had to be in the Hunter Valley at 7 am because one of the couples was having a date in a hot-air balloon. You just sit there all day on the off-chance somebody hurts themselves.”
She may have been mingling with TV stars, but the day-to-day routine simply didn’t suit the mum-of-one, who candidly admits she “can’t sit still”.
Straight-talking Chris explains reality TV “didn’t sit right with me” so she quit her job. Determined to make a real difference to the lives of those doing it tough, she launched her own charity.
StreetMed provides free medical aid, mental health and advocacy for the homeless and at-risk in western Sydney.
Having been homeless herself for a time, Chris knows first-hand the challenges that come with a life on the streets.
“I came from a broken family – my parents split when I was eight,” Chris says, explaining she moved out of home at 18 to
That day marked a new beginning, with Chris getting clean and taking a new path. “If none of that had happened, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she says.spend the next four years either couch-surfing or sleeping in her car. “I was working in pubs and clubs, and at the same time I became addicted to speed and cocaine. Then one day I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘If I don’t stop this, I’m going to die.’”
Her charity was officially established in August 2014 and the plucky mum admits it hasn’t been smooth sailing. She hasn’t had a wage in five years but pays tribute to her husband Graham, who has worked two jobs to support both her and their 13-year-old son Adam.
“It’s been tough, and in the first three years I’d come home and sit on my husband’s lap and just sob. [I’d] tell him I was giving it up to become a receptionist,” Chris admits.
“He’d look at me and be like, ‘What is this foolish crap you’re talking about? You’d last a couple of hours and tell them to stick it.’”
Chris’ motto is “we don’t sweat the small stuff” and it’s an attitude she’s passing on to her son. “We’ve got an understanding little boy who has a beautiful heart and soul and he’ll come out with me doing day shifts and help out,” says Chris. “We’re really blessed with him.”
Chris’ new role means her family understands the fragility of life. In February, a man Chris befriended and helped for more than four years died after a short battle with cancer.
“Christopher was one of my favourites,” she says. “He was a Vietnam veteran who we rescued off the streets and got housed. He was a beautiful, beautiful man.”
Chris’ voice quivers with emotion as she recalls a proud man who, for a long time, collected blankets for others living rough rather than accepting help himself.
“In the end, the only way I could get him off the streets was to sob in front of him,” says Chris. “He asked why I was crying, and I said, ‘My father’s a Vietnam veteran. If he was homeless on the street, I’d hope someone would help him. You’ve got to trust somebody. I’m in front of you. Let’s do it.’ That’s how I got him to finally relent.”
When Chris heard Christopher was gravely ill in hospital, she rushed to his bedside and sat with him every day until he passed away.
“He was pretty much comatose, and I made sure towards the end he had enough pain relief. I’d sit there and talk to him. It was heartbreaking,” Chris recalls.
While Christopher successfully turned his life around before he died, not everyone makes the same progress. Even so, Chris believes all people deserve the same chance
“I think everyone has an element of good in them. Sometimes you just have to look a bit harder to find it,” she says. “Typically, people aren’t born evil. Circumstances make them that way. If you can help them realise there are people out there they can trust, who they can rely on, who will walk beside them, then seven times out of 10 they will let you do that.”
While she hopes one day to build her own community offering those on the street a safe place to stay, for now Chris is taking things day by day.
“When we turn up on shift and there are queues of people to be looked at – whether it’s blood pressure, blood sugars or mental health help they need – to turn around and say we’re not doing StreetMed any more would never be an option,” she insists. “Failure is not an option.”