36.8 % of homelessness in Australia (as documented by Homelessness Australia with data from the AIHW Specialist homelessness services data collection 2012-13) is caused by domestic and family violence. This is the most common cause.
Since February this year in just Melbourne alone, there have been 3 high profile cases of domestic violence leading to murder (Luke Batty, a women stabbed to death in Sunshine and 2 sisters murdered). These tragic events serve as an alarm siren for us in Australia to bring about change.
“If women and children were being abused and murdered by strangers at the rate at which they’re being abused and murdered by men in their family, there’d be taskforce, there’d be funding, there’d be political will”
The Lookout is a great place to go, for more info, help and support with this issue.
Lets talk about this issue and bring some light into this dark hidden place in Australian family life.
Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho was homeless in São Paulo, Brazil, for nearly 35 years, and became locally known for sitting in the same spot and writing every day. In April 2011, he was befriended by a young woman named Shalla Monteiro. Impressed by his poetry and wanting to help him with his dream of publishing a book, she created a Facebook Page to feature Raimundo’s writing. Neither could have expected what happened next.
It’s hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person. Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren’t really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don’t want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?
I don’t think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond. People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is. At The Intersection we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view. Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless? Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol? What do we buy with our money? Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money? What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day?
Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change. He says that empathy is more than just sympathy. It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another. In a recent blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller. He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.
“So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.
Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection.”
What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person? Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.
It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising.
The thing about stereotypes is that they are not necessarily wrong, just incomplete. You see to a certain extent stereotypes can be helpful, as they help us make sense of the world. When we see someone in a school uniform we know they go to school. When we see someone in a hard hat and steel cap boots with a fluro vest we know they are a builder. The issue becomes when we take this stereotype further and end up making a judgment or prejudice from this.
As Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:
In her powerful Ted talk she warns us about the danger of a single story. When we only have a single story we end up with an incomplete picture and therefore end up judging.
What single story have we heard about homeless people? Do we need to hear another one?
The Salvation Army just released a report on their recent research into homeless in Australia. The study found the following:
I’d just finished work, it had been a big day. I’d spent the last hour talking with a drunk lady in the laneway who needed help moving and finding a new place to stay.
I was walking up Bourke St on my way home via some bookshops when a beggar stopped me and asked for money. He said he needed some money to so he could a find place to stay that night.
I have a rather bad habit of not carrying any cash. I said “Sorry I don’t have anything on me.” For some reason I always want to show beggars my wallet to make them realise I’m not lying.
The man looked at me and said quite accusingly, “Yes you do. You just don’t want to. You and I both know that you could walk to an ATM and get out money right now. You just don’t want to.” He was right.
I remembered this man from a few days ago, I had given him $10 for the same reason. I fumbled out this explanation, but this did not satisfy him. “It’s people like you that make people like me steal and mug people. I don’t know how you sleep at night.” He was getting angrier and angrier by the minute. At this point I decided the best option was for me to keep walking. I said, “Look. Sorry, I just don’t have any cash on me. Good luck.” and continued to walk up the street, and ducked in to the bookshop I was going to. He continued to yell at me. The last thing I heard him call out to me was the C bomb…it rang out in my ears.
I felt pretty crap. He was so agro and aggressive. He was right I could get out money and probably not even notice that I’d given him some. This experience was such a contrast to the one I’d just had with the lady in the laneway. She was very appreciative and not demanding and not wanting to impose on anyone.
Homeless people are people. Just as some people are nice and others not so…
Could you blame this man’s agro? He’d probably been asking for money all day (or months for that matter) and had the same answer from anyone. He would of been frustrated watching people say they have no money then go and buy food or go into nice book shops like I did. People saying they have no money, but wearing nice clothes and holding nice bags.
A man walked into my office last week. Dirty, smelly and looking sad. He asked if someone could help him find somewhere to stay.
I made a phone call to our main office to see if I could find someone who was available to chat with this man.
(Why didn’t I help him? To be honest I didn’t really know where to start, and I knew that someone else at Urban Seed would know what to do. As my main task is education about homelessness to school kids, I don’t know much about on the ground work).
It was going to be awhile till someone could chat to him. He started to cry and said, that “no one wants to help you when you’re homeless. Look at me, I’m dirty. I can’t even get clean clothes. I’ve tried to kill myself…” he said, showing me his wrist. He continued, “I’ve been in hospital and they don’t wont to help me, they just kick you out. No one will help me.”
I’m not sure I dealt with this man the best I could. I was a bit taken a back. It was confronting and I felt helpless. I also felt a little unsure of the situation, as it was just me and him alone in my office.
I asked if he knew where Credo was? If he went over there someone would be able to help him, and he could get some food. He said he couldn’t walk and could hardly breathe. I asked if he wanted to sit down on our couches and have a rest and he said “no, no I can’t. I can’t breathe.”
I made another call back to our main office to see if someone could come over and chat with him. He was clearly distressed and not able to go over there. Stu – one of our residents, would be over soon.
I told him, “Someone will be here soon, with some food and they will be able to help you.”
He continued to get worked up and say no one wanted to help. “I’ve been sleeping in a stair well and in a building site. Look me!…” Eventually he said “I’m going for a walk I’ll come back.” And then he just disappeared out into the cold wet Melbourne spring day.
He left as I was meeting some students who wanted to interview me about the work Urban Seed does. A few mins later Stu showed up, with some food ready to help. But the man was gone. Stu left the food. And we agreed I’d call Stu if he came back.
Half way through the interview I was doing with the students we saw him walk past. I ran out to see if I could get him to stop, but by the time I got to the door he was half way up the street and holing a 4 pack of Jack Daniels and coke. Could you blame him? It was raining. He was covered in mud. He was in pain. Distressed, upset and just wanted someone to help him. Jack seemed to be the only one willing to.
At this point I’d written off ever seeing him again. And was wondering if I and what I could have done to help.
Half an hour later he appeared. I promptly gave him the food – spaghetti carbonara. And took him to our couches and said “you have a rest here, and I’ll call Stu to come and have a chat with you.”
He ate a few mouthfuls of the spaghetti carbonara. And then said he can’t eat, “I can’t breathe properly. I’ve been coughing up blood. I’ve got lung cancer. Do you think I’ve got lung cancer?” He then asked if I could turn the lights out so he could sleep, and then asked me to wake him at 3pm. So I left him in the dark, and went back to work.
Stu showed up. He chatted with the man, made some calls, and generally made the guy feel at ease. I was impressed by his ability to chat with this man face to face and treat him just like a friend.
Stu was unable to find him anywhere to stay that night. He found one place but the man was not willing to stay there. He said it was full of drug users it made him feel unsafe. It’s saying something when a man appears in your office in tears wanting help for somewhere to stay the night, but then turns down the only place available. The rain and building site were a safer bedroom for him than the so called refuge.
I went home that night (it was cold and wet) to my home, to my bed, TV, couch and nice things. And I was thinking of this man and where he would go and what he would do. The last thing he said to me was, “you are lucky you have a home. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
I just walked past a homeless man.
(I am assuming he was homeless as he had no shoes on, dirty clothes, mated hair and was looking through a bin. )
As I past him I tried to not look at him, I didn’t want to gain eye contact.
Honestly, I didn’t want to give him any money. I didn’t want to help him. And I knew that by looking at him, and getting eye contact with him I would feel terribly guilty about not helping him. I don’t want to feel bad. So the best tactic was (is) to pretend I didn’t see him and just keep walking. Just act as if he didn’t exist.
The problem is this didn’t/doesn’t really work. I still feel terrible. This man does exist and is probably still wondering the streets looking in bins, without and shoes.
Although this video is highlighting the transformation of a homeless man from an on the surface to a deeper level. To me this video is about stereotypes. About how we judge and treat someone based on what they look like. As shallow as this sounds, if we take a look into our own lives we wont have to look hard to find examples.
We tell a story at Urban Seed, and although it is an old one, and has almost entered the realm of myth. It holds a profound truth about stereotypes. It goes something like this:
There was once a man who worked on the top of end of Collins St in Melbourne. He was a successful business man, looked the part and fit in very well in the city.
He was invited to a fancy dress party at the Old Melbourne Goal. Not wanting to dress the same as everyone else he decided he would go as a homeless man. He thought he was being rather clever, given that the Old Melbourne Gaol was known for the likes of Ned Kelly and prisoners. He thought a homeless man was a good modern twist of the outsider in society.
Wanting to look the part and have the best costume he deiced to grow his beard out. He went to the op shop and found dirty hole-ly trousers. A slipper and an un-matching shoe to go with. About 3 overcoats. And he stuffed plastic bags full of rags. We wore fingerless gloves and a beanie. And even made a cardboard sign asking for money and put a bottle in a brown paper bag.
This fancy dress party happened to be after work. So the man decided to get changed at walk and then walk to the party. So he took off his nice suit and put on his ‘hobo’ costume. Then hit the streets of Melbourne at peak hour on his way to the party.
As he walked up the busy streets to the party something strange happened. He had this feeling that everyone was looking at him, but no one was looking him. Instead of having to push his way through the crowds like he normally would after work, he had all this space around him. And one person even crossed the street as he got close. This started to disturb him. Did people think he was homeless?
His suspicions were confirmed when he went to get some cigarettes to complete his outfit. As he went to go in the 7-11, the man serving from behind the counter came out and stood in the doorway stopping him from entering, and said, “you can’t come in here!”
The man was taken a back. He just wanted to get some smokes. He’d never been knocked back from a shop before. Thinking on his feet, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, and said “what makes you think I can’t pay?”
Immediately the shop keeper, stepped aside and let him in.
This story makes us question whether we really know who someone is. I think we all would have assumed this man was homeless had we seen him that day walking the streets.
It also highlights how we include or exclude people based on they way they look. As I feel this video is highlighting.
And finally it makes a sad point about money, and how it talks and changes everything.