Corey Sutton | Brekky producer
Back in March, I had the privilege to experience Shalom House first hand. I followed CEO Peter Lyndon-James as he went about his daily work, watching as he interacted with men broken by addiction.
Peter Lyndon-James walks into the radio studio, gingerly balancing a steaming black tea in his right hand. He prefers it strong; two teabags, hold the sugar. At face value, there is nothing sweet about Peter either.
He’s a bald man, early forties. Rough skin, but his shins are surprisingly shiny. There is no more than a day’s growth of facial hair at any time on him. A smile breaking on his face is a rarity, but a privilege to witness when one escapes.
His daily attire hasn’t changed in the last three years. A baby blue collared shirt, denim shorts reaching past his knees, and a pair of black thongs, probably two sizes too big. His sleeves are rolled mid-way up his forearm, revealing a masterpiece of faded green tattoos. Hanging off his left wrist is a silver watch, unclipped. Peter prefers to keep it loose. Regardless of the day, irrespective of the weather, you will always catch Peter wearing this. For the thinking man, his wardrobe screams efficiency, but for the realist, it’s just comfortable for him. I like to imagine his wardrobe consists of nothing but blue shirts, denim shorts, and black thongs.
Around his neck are two phones attached to a chain. Nestled between them rests a rich, wooden crucifix. One phone can’t keep up with the multitude of men in Perth who are crying out for help in their darkest moments. Peter doesn’t answer the first call anymore. If they’re serious about changing their life, they’ll call again. They need to be at rock bottom before Peter accepts them. Only when they’ve got nowhere to live, no family to call upon, no place else to turn, does Peter accept them into his program. They need to want to change.
After exchanging handshakes with the Mornings show host Mike, Peter takes a seat and kicks off his thongs. With the two top buttons undone on the shirt, a loose watch, and now no thongs, Peter strikes me as a man who doesn’t like to be constricted. He takes a sip of the tea then turns his attention to me.
“You need a haircut bro,” he quips with a gravelly mumble, as if his mouth can’t quite open as much as it should to sculpt the words.
“If you were at Shalom, I’d shave your head”.
After the laughter settles down, Mike reminds him to put his headset on. The two sit in silence. The music fades. A sign on the wall reading ‘live’ lights up.
“You’re on 98five. This is Mornings with Mike. My regular guest every Wednesday morning is Peter Lyndon-James from Shalom House. As usual, we’ll be taking any questions you might have for Peter, anonymous of course, about Shalom House, and you can send them in on 0429 985 985. Peter, for those who don’t know what Shalom is, could you remind us?”
“Always nice to be here Mike. We’re a rehabilitation centre for men with life controlling issues: anything that stops you from living a normal life. We’re the toughest rehab in Australia. Nothin’ else in Australia like us. We’ve been called tougher than jail. I love that.”
After the interview Peter invites me to come to the recalibration meeting they hold every Monday, it will be a way to see Shalom House in the day-to-day. The meeting is designed to get everyone on the same page. All men in the program, and staff, will be there. It’s a chance to air grievances, give announcements, and share information. Initially I’m hesitant, but I accept the offer and agree to see him there at 10am.
“Milena, my PA, will text you the address.” Peter shakes my hand, shares a joke with Mike then leaves. Sure enough, five minutes later I get the address: 111 Bluegum Road, Beechboro.
While driving down Tonkin highway, I start to play Peter’s story in my head. I first met him six months ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with him and ask him a few questions.
Peter’s dad ran away with his 16-year-old babysitter. His mum was an alcoholic. When his mum went to rehab, Peter and his siblings were sent to either foster families or children’s homes. This was the catalyst that began Peter’s life of crime.
“I got put in a boys’ prison for running away from children’s homes. I never committed a crime, never did anything wrong. I was nine. They put nit cream in me hair, crab cream on me nuts, and threw me in a cell. I remember I grabbed a hold of my pillow, jumped on top of the bed and just rocked side to side and cried.”
Prison became Peter’s story for these formative years. He’d be in for a month then out for a day. Back in for 11 months, out for a week. It totalled seven years. He’d break into houses and steal cars, all the while under the influence of drugs.
“I became what they call institutionalised.”
This lifestyle spanned 26 years. He was selling 2.5kg of methamphetamines a day, 20 handguns a week. Looking through old photographs of Peter at the height of his criminal career, he looks an angry man. Sporting a full beard and an aggressive gaze in his eyes, he genuinely looks dangerous.
Peter didn’t even bat an eyelid when I ask how much money he was making from this.
“Forty thousand bucks a day.”
It’s a figure that is echoing through my mind while I turn onto Bluegum Road. That’s more than I earn in one year.
It all changed for Peter though. It’s what he calls his, “nuked by God moment.” His wife had enrolled his eldest son into Grasshopper soccer. So Peter tried to be the good father and go with his son.
“I went over to the park and there were all these geeks there.”
‘Geeks’ is one of Peter’s go-to words in his surprisingly broad vernacular. He’s never short of a colloquial turn of phrase or keyword when he grasps for one. His creativity in that aspect astounds me.
“The deal was, if the kid kicked the ball through the dad’s legs, then the dad had to roll around on the ground and make the kid feel all fluffy, coochy coochy coo type stuff.
“My heart was running a hundred miles an hour, thinking to myself, ‘if my boy kicks a ball through my legs, there is no way in the world I’m gonna roll around on the ground. So he kicked the ball through my legs, and I turned my back on my son. I began to cry, and from that day on, God intervened in my life. For me, that was the turning point.”
There is nothing subtle about Shalom when I pull into the car park. The first thing I notice is three white buses with the logo printed on the side parked neatly side-by-side. Scattered around them is a few men, mid-thirties, high-vis work shirts, sharing a laugh over a drink of water. Each man has the same haircut: one on the sides, two on top. After exiting my car, I notice that none of them are wearing shoes, sporting thick work socks, rather. They say a cheery g’day and I return the favour then head towards the entrance. Neatly placed outside the door is maybe 60 or 70 pairs of work boots.
Inside is a large foyer leading off to an auditorium of sorts. The foyer is a babbling sea of high-vis yellow and orange work shirts with reflective stripes on some and branding on the other. They’re all wearing this because Shalom is a working rehab. Peter established a maintenance business called Shalom Works. All the men are labourers in the business. All money earned through Shalom Works goes straight back into covering costs for Shalom House. As soon as the meeting is over, they’ll all head out to a job.
I wade through the crowd, all the while saying hello as the men who I enter a two-meter radius of make sure to welcome me. Daniel, William, Mike, Bryan, Andrew, Michael. I stop remembering names after this goes on. They’re all very polite I think to myself as I enter the auditorium and take a place in a chair at the far end.
A young man approaches me bearing a grin with gaps.
“Hey mate, Daniel,” he thrusts out a hand to shake, “you’ll get told off by Peter if he sees you sitting up the back.”
Thanks to his prompting, I move myself to the front row of the auditorium. I don’t quite feel like being isolated in a room of 70 men, not today anyway.
The seats around me begin to fill up the closer time gets to 10; a flurry of ‘g’days’ naturally follows. In a crowd of men, I never felt more like a boy in my life. All the seats are full now. Among the high-vis are light blue shirts; these are the Shalom House staff. I take comfort in knowing they’re here.
Peter strolls in, his feet dragging along the ground, the thongs making a scuffing noise. With each approaching step, the room gets quieter until he places himself in front of a pulpit made from a rusty, mangled chain. When I look at it, I don’t expect anything less.
“How is everyone?” Peter yells.
A simultaneous chorus of “good” sounds out around me.
Peter pauses and looks around, then repeats himself.
“Come on, you can do better than that, how is everyone?”
Same haircut. Same clothes. Exceedingly friendly, and speaking in unison when spoken to. If you didn’t know what was going on, you’d assume this was a working class cult.
The meeting runs its course under Peter’s guidance. He touches on house rules, any arguments that have arisen. He invites one member to tell his testimony too. After all this he addresses the financial situation.
“Fellas, people assume that the $300 a week that you pay goes straight into our pockets. We don’t make money out of you. We run on the smell of an oily rag.”
Peter does have a great deal of detractors from his work. His Facebook page is littered with abuse towards Shalom House. A catalyst for this is the fact that it is a faith-based rehab centre. It scares people, enrages them, and confuses them. Academics believe that Peter’s cold turkey and tough love technique of rehabilitation is not what is required for addicts. Peter couldn’t care less but; it’s his way or the highway.
A week later I find myself following Peter on a warm afternoon around the Shalom offices. Milena his PA invited me out, said it would be useful to see what happens here on ground level. In one of the most humbling experiences of my life, I am allowed to interact with the residents of Shalom. Each one has their own heartbreaking story: death, destruction, crime, abuse, and divorce. Each one a different level of severity. After hours of speaking to different men, my heart is mourning for each and every one of these tragic cases. When I finish with one man, I’m whisked away to speak to another. And then another. And then another.
Ash is 31-years-old. He’s been addicted to drugs for 15 years. He started smoking pot when he was 13. He fell into a bad group of friends. From there followed heavy drinking and LSD. It destroyed all his relationships.
I encounter Ash when Peter says they’ve got someone coming in to see if they’re ready to join the program and I’m free to sit in and watch the process. There are no closed doors with Peter. I am only armed with a pen and paper, but I’m sure if I had a camera and mic he’d be just the same.
Christine, Ash’s mum, has brought him in. The four of us head outside, there are two chairs set out for them. Peter places a third chair opposite. I stand a few meters behind as to not intrude on the situation.
Ash is wearing all black. Black jeans, black jumper, black sunglasses, black hat. A wiry beard reaches down his chest. If helplessness were a person, it would be manifested in Ash’s body right now. He removes his hat and glasses to reveal a shaved head and bloodshot eyes. Christine sits aside in stark contrast. A lilac spotted blouse and navy dress. On her ankle rests a faded tattoo of a butterfly. There is no veneer to her anymore; upon her face she wears grief.
“You look like crap,” Peter barks. His blunt force words hang in the air.
Ash doesn’t reply.
“Are you serious about changing?”
“When was the last time you used?”
“Yesterday. I drank a bottle of red. I’m drinking 2.5L of beer a day.”
“We’re a working rehab. We want you to work for it. Society shouldn’t have to pay for your recovery. Families get restored here. Now there’s a heap of hurt in your mum, but we offer counselling too. How do you feel?”
“Scared. I’m pretty weak at the moment.”
“You got one shot here. If you so much as pick up a cig’ butt, your butt is gone. Zero tolerance.”
Ash nods, tears are running down his face.
“There’s nothing from us at the end if you run,” Ash’s mum adds through sobs. She’s told every relative to have nothing to do with him if this doesn’t work out.
“Alright. Hand over your wallet, phone. Say goodbye to your mum.”
Ash and his mum stand and hug tightly. It’s that warm hug you crave from a partner; the hug that says everything is going to be OK.
“I love you, mum.”
“I love you, too.”
The next words out of Ash’s mouth truly surprise me. He begins to breakdown now. He’s sobbing uncontrollably.
“Tell Grandma I love her.” With that Ash is now gone. His mum is taken away to meet another person to discuss the logistics of how this is going to work. Ash is lead by Peter to a chair out in the sun. Peter sits Ash down then shaves his head. Peter’s got it down to a fine art now; he’s shaved that many heads. Ash’s beard takes a little longer. From here he is given some work clothes, and then driven off to one of the houses to settle in to his room.
Ash left the next morning. Staff found him crying on the side of the road. He went to the hospital.
Two weeks have now gone by, and I’m sitting in the studio again. Peter is taking calls today from worrying parents. A lady named Sandy is on the line, her voice has a quiver full of tears balanced delicately in the back of her throat.
“My daughter, we think she’s been doing some white powder for a while. She’s got an eight-year-old boy, my grandson. They both now live with us. She sleeps with different men during the day to earn money. My husband and I just don’t know where to turn”.
“Sandy. I really feel for you. What parents need to do, and what they’re scared to do, is to turn their loved one over to the consequences. She is subjecting her body to men and substances that no child should ever be exposed to. It’s just not OK. Someone needs to speak up because the kid can’t. You don’t need to worry about the consequences of making a right choice. Down the track, the boy might not understand. But in the future, he’s gonna thank you.”
A brief silence follows before Sandy speaks again.
“Thank you, that’s just what I needed to hear. It’s confirmation.”
Mike quickly finishes the segment then plays a song. Both him and Peter take their headphones off and sit in quiet. They’re both silently crying; breathing deeply.
“That was really sad,” Peter says as he stands up and begins to pace the studio, fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube he’s found on the desk.
“How do you relax Pete?” It’s my first question I’ve intentionally asked him.
“I don’t actually relax. I don’t like sitting still. When I’m away, I catch up on paperwork. I don’t have any hobbies.” Peter is still red eyed, but he’s composed himself now. “God has ruined my life. Nothing else is important to me anymore. I just love God.”
If you want to watch Peter’s full story, you can check it out here.
The Ice Age has hit Perth. Men and women are trapped in addiction’s vice. It roams the streets, lurking in the shadows, preying on the limp.
Yet springing out of the darkness is Peter, a man of God with a godly mission. He raises men out of the clutches of addiction, leads them through the storm, and sets their feet firm on a path that is clear.
Though Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?