It wasn't the strong, sour smell of urine coming from the guy in the corner that bothered me. He was crusty, and cowed, and wouldn't look anyone in the eye, but he didn't bother me.
Neither did the old man who was dirty, and cheerful, but so addled I could hardly understand what he was saying. Or even the young woman who brought her three-year-old daughter in a pram, who made me suck in my breath when she looked at me with blank eyes.
No. It was the elderly woman, sitting by herself who really got to me.
I noticed her as the last of the breakfast meals were being served, and I thought to myself how carefully dressed she was. She looked as though she had taken care over her outfit, and I particularly liked the small, round fur hat she wore.
She just sat, by herself, and spooned the cereal into her mouth. Then when I looked back ten minutes later, she was gone.
Later, after we'd finished picking the grapes off the stalks - chucking out any that were too mouldy - and topping and tailing the butter beans, the room started to get really busy once the lunches began being doled out.
Before I knew it there were a hundred people eating their three-course meal, which today consisted of a sausage casserole, assorted vegies, carrot and spinach soup, mashed potato, sauerkraut, and for dessert, a banana cake with caramel sauce. The cake was the hottest ticket and most people scraped their spoons round their bowls to get every last drip of the super-sweet sugary sauce.
It was my job to clear away the trays and plates, keep the tables clean and wiped, water jugs full; and I was run off my feet doing it - I don't think I stopped for over a couple of hours at least. And the people just kept coming. There was the odd druggie, a few working girls, a handful of blokes who were clearly mentally unstable.
But for the most part, out of the 300 or so people we fed lunch to, they seemed like really ordinary people. Normal people like you and me, except they happened to be homeless, or out of work, or living with various addictions. Or lonely and poor, like the old lady in the fur hat, who I noticed came back for lunch and sat there quietly again, on her own.
One good thing about the Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda is that the lunches aren't means tested. If you're brave enough to show up and stand in line for a free meal, then you're entitled to it - no questions asked.
And the thing that surprised me was how nice everyone was. Here I was, clearing away dirty plates and glasses, feeling quite out of my element (like I was in their way almost, which is odd because I was there doing what I was meant to be doing) and most people were really kind. Lots of the clients called me by my first name (all the volunteers wear nametags), and said thank you when I took their empties away, and quite a few engaged me in conversation about all manner of things.
I don't know why I was surprised by that, but it quite touched me. I think more people there at the Mission said kind things to me today than I would ordinarily hear in a week at my real work. I certainly heard the word thank you more than I'd hear it in a MONTH at the office, and that was a real shock.
So it wasn't the homelessness aspect that bothered me, I think, in the end. It was the generosity of spirit from people who had nothing else to give, but gave it freely. And the contrast with the world I live in, which is so far from that one materially, and an aeon away in humility.