A BRISK chill sweeps across the front of the disheveled Civic Hall, windows rattling in the wind.
By the front steps of the bordered up building, waiting faces are hidden beneath beanies and hoods and shadows cast off the dim street lights.
Then, as it does the same five nights each week, the Soup Bus rolls in.
It parks directly in front of the waiting faces, which seem to instantly brighten a shade.
Somewhat symbolically, the site that has caused Ballarat so much grief in the past now acts as the nightly home to one of the city's most treasured resources.
In a way, the bus's clients share a bond with Civic Hall, both are under-appreciated but with great potential.
In the past two and a half years the Soup Bus has served more than 20,000 dinners to people who need it, regardless of their background or situation.
Questions are not asked of those asking for food, and there is no qualification. Everyone who needs food gets it.
But as Soup Bus coordinator Leanne Licastro tells me on my maiden shift behind the windows, it is more than just a place to get fed.
"There's a huge variety of circumstances that bring people here," she says. "But we don't like to go into that, we like to talk about things like the football and what they've been up to in their day.
"We just want to look after them, feed them and know that they can talk to us if they want to."
Ms Licastro says homelessness and disadvantage are continuing to grow in Ballarat, and the Soup Bus is seeing more clients than ever before.
"It's a much bigger problem than people realise," she says.
"I think homelessness is misunderstood and fairly well hidden. Ballarat's not a really safe place at night and they're targets if they're sleeping out.
"I guess if you drive through the streets you don't see them, whereas if you're in St Kilda you see them sleeping in doorways.
"It gives the impression Ballarat doesn't have homeless people, but we do.
"Our numbers at the Soup Bus are continuing to grow, and it's not the same people all the time. They come from all different sources.
"I mean, we've had an accountant who just did it hard and ended up here, so it could be anybody at any day. You only have to make one wrong choice, one mistake and you could lose everything and end up homeless or here."
Run by a voluntary board, the Soup Bus relies entirely on volunteers.
About 25 local businesses take turns to prepare food specially for the program, which is funded solely through donations, sponsorship and fundraising activities.
With almost 400 volunteers and a waiting list of about 50, the Soup Bus is overflowing with supporters. Sadly though, its client base is growing too.
In its first year (July 2009 to June 2010) the Soup Bus served 6666 meals, which increased by almost 20 per cent in the next 12 months to 7892. This year the number is set to grow once more with about 6000 meals served so far.
It seems the cracks of society are widening and more people are falling down; more people needing help.
As the serving of the first round of meals finishes up, I put on an orange vest and venture off the bus. I take a seat on the steps of Ballarat's most controversial building.
I start chatting to Jason*, a 33-year-old man who up until a month ago was living with his wife and children in their family home.
He wasn't happy, but he wasn't relying on others for food. Life can be a fickle game.
"It was like I'd won Tattslotto and then all of a sudden I've hit rock bottom," he says, offering a level of honesty far greater than a stranger deserves.
"If it wasn't for the food van I wouldn't eat. I'm out of money a day or two after I get paid, and it's two weeks in between. I haven't got any support structures left."
Jason admits to battling drugs and alcohol, and says he couldn't bear for his children to be witness his behaviour.
"My kids are getting to the age where they'll start to notice what's happening," he says.
"I don't want them growing up and thinking it (my behaviour) is normal. Or heaven forbid my little girl grows up and marries some prick like me.
"I'm trying to get myself in order, but it's a long road and especially being out here almost on the streets, it's very lonely.
"I love my kids to bits, if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here."
He says he can't wait for the day he sees them again.
Twenty-two-year-old Jon tells a different story. He's been coming to the Soup Bus for more than a year.
Despite bouts of homelessness in the past, even now with more stable accommodation he says he couldn't survive without the nightly meal.
"I come down here for two reasons," he says. "Food because I'm financially unable (to feed myself), and I come to learn from other people about methods not to get into the same situation.
"Since the financial crisis came along it's hit a lot of people hard, yet come here and you get food and you can go to St John's Church and get breakfast or go to Breazeway and you get a lunch.
"There is enough support around, you've just got to find it and get into it. It can be tricky, but if you don't know you just come here (to the Soup Bus)."
Then I meet Steve, with his thick beard and sharp wit.
After his wife died late last year, Steve decided to move back to Ballarat from Tasmania.
Now he's back living in emergency accommodation, just as he did before his 12 year stint down south. He says his greatest challenge is finding work.
Despite boasting a forklift license, hospitality experience and a willingness to do almost anything, Steve says he struggles to find an employer who will take him on.
"I've been applying for that many jobs, like to work in a warehouse, and absolutely nothing.
"I've been ringing up companies and asking for work for fork lift drivers and they say you're not experienced enough.
"I've told them I've got a full licence to drive a fork lift."
After telling of a kitchen hand job he's waiting to hear back from, Steve resigns, "It's hard to survive on the pension. I'd be struggling to eat without the soup van".
Uniting Care Ballarat executive director Cliff Barclay says that people without recent work experience face the vicious cycle of long-term unemployment.
"The longer you haven't got a job the harder it is to get one. If you're an employer and someone hasn't worked for a few years you're more likely to give it to someone who's recently been working and that's the trouble.
"Every time we put a job up we get at least a dozen or sometimes 50 or 60 people apply, it's a competitive world out there and some people just keep missing out.
"With factories in Ballarat closing down it's becoming harder and harder."
Uniting Care Ballarat provides lunch time meals through the BreezeWay program, targeting people who are marginalised, homeless or living in insecure accommodation.
In 14 years the program has served over 250,000 meals.
"There is a significant degree of disadvantage in Ballarat," Mr Barclay says.
"We've got some very wealthy people and a strong middle class, but there is also a solid number of people that are struggling. People wandering the streets are likely to have a wide range of needs.
"There's no one strategy that is going to pick everyone up and the Soup Bus is part of the mix.
"What we need is enough housing to put people in and social connection.
"Things like people selling the Big Issue, it's more than that they can just earn a little money. It's giving them a connection to the community.
"It's no good having a roof over your head and you're the only one in the house and not connected to anyone."
I turn my voice recorder off and get back on the bus, doing my best to help wipe down benches and pack away equipment.
As the last meals are put into foil and paper bags and given to clients for lunch tomorrow, the Soup Bus prepares to depart.
Slowly the clients wander away from the front steps of the embattled Civic Hall building. Hopefully both have better days ahead.
*Not his real name.