BY ALANA LEVENE
Fifteen years ago, Hank, a homeless man, turned up at the Footpath Library’s mobile site in Woolloomooloo. He cracked a cheeky grin and jokingly asked the library’s founder, Sarah Garnett, if she had any colouring books. The two became fast friends.
Last week, at Garnett’s request, Deputy Lord Mayor Linda Scott moved a motion in the City of Sydney Council to install a plaque or mural honouring Hank in Martin Place — a central public space for locals experiencing homelessness.
After years of deteriorating health, Henry ‘Hank’ Maslak passed away on Christmas Eve. In his 70 years, Hank befriended doctors, teachers, students, bus drivers, council workers and homeless people. In his final days, they lined up at St Vincent’s to say goodbye to their friend.
A real gentleman
“The hospital could not believe how many visitors he had,” Garnett said. “The nurses and the doctors all loved him, too.”
Martin Place is where Garnett parked her mobile library, which gives donated books to homeless people. Every Tuesday night, Hank came for the conversations, the camaraderie and the community spirit.
“It soon became apparent to us that he was quite a remarkable man, a real gentleman, and had a great sense of humor,” Garnett said. “He was just a delight to be around. We really looked forward to seeing him.”
Whether he was living on the streets or in a cockroach-ridden boarding house, Hank always got himself down to Martin Place. Even as his health declined, he traveled by wheelchair.
Scott and Garnett want Hank’s commemoration to underscore the stark duality of Martin Place — by day, a bustling business hub, and by night, an important site for homeless people.
“It should be accessible for everybody,” said Scott. “Both the heights of our City’s wealth, but also those who are most vulnerable.”
A mural or plaque at Martin Place might get people to stop and think about Sydney’s growing homeless population, Garnett said.
“Hopefully, it can help educate people and our politicians, most of whom have turned a blind eye to this,” she said.
Homelessness up 37 per cent
Homelessness has increased by 37 per cent across New South Wales in recent years, while state spending on services for homeless people decreased by 14 per cent, according to Scott. Around 300 people sleep rough every night in Sydney, with more in insecure temporary accommodation.
Despite that growth, homeless people can seem “invisible,” Garnett said.
“People just don’t notice them, and they are contributing members of our community,” she said. “Most of them are well-educated, highly intelligent, caring people, who through no fault of their own, have ended up on the streets.”
Hank, for one, grew up sheltered by his loving mother, said Garnett, who delivered his eulogy. He was well-educated and held various jobs before his life took an unexpected turn.
“Hank’s experiences are emblematic of many of the people embroiled in the crisis of homelessness occurring in NSW,” Scott said. “A society is to be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, and we need to do more.”