A couple of weeks ago, on a cold and rainy evening (aren’t they all like that, now that summer is over?), G and I made our regular pilgrimage to our favourite gelato shop. We usually walk the four kilometers there and back to justify having gelato for supper.
As we started the trek back home, we saw a young man, perhaps about 18 or 20, setting up camp for the night on the steps of the town hall. His cardboard sign read, “My name is Nikolas and I am homeless. Please help.”
One thing I love about my husband is his empathy and compassion. He immediately turned to me and asked if I had anymore cash, as he hadn’t brought my wallet. I didn’t. I had only brought exactly enough for gelato because we have a bad habit of buying seconds if we have extra cash on us and we’re supposed to be on a diet and a budget.
So we decided we’d go home and get some money and some food for this boy and bring it back to him. Since he seemed to be settling in there for the night, we figured he’d still be there in an hour. When we got home, we put together a care package of some cash, a pair of socks, and a sandwich and some snacks, hopped in the car, and drove back.
We gave Nikolas his care package and I asked him how long he’d been on the streets. He replied that this was his first week sleeping on the streets and explained that he was trying to get off drugs (it was his second day being sober) so that he could get a job. He said that the homeless shelters were full of drugs addicts and it was too hard to be around those people while he was trying to quit, so he figured he’d do better on the street.
One of the things I noticed when I came to Melbourne is that homeless people are not nearly so visible as they are in major American cities. Granted, a lot of “homeless” people in America are scammers who are not really homeless at all. They are usually the ones that stand at freeway exits and usually look pretty able-bodied and clean, wearing clothes in good condition and have shaved recently. The real homeless people in America tend to be concentrated in the city centers and you see them everywhere. In Melbourne, you only see them occasionally and only in certain areas. For example, they are frequent fixtures near the Bourke Street shopping area.
This is the part where I’m going to get up on my moral high horse for a bit, so brace yourselves.
I am so sick of seeing people pretend not to see homeless people. It happens in America and it happens in Australia. People step over them, avert their eyes and pretend not to notice them, never offer a kind word or any help to people who are clearly down and out. And it’s just wrong.
You can’t fix the world and you’ll go broke if you start giving all your money away to everyone who needs it. But next time you’re out shopping, consider how much money you are spending on yourself, mainly for things you don’t really need, and ask yourself if you really can’t spare $5 for the homeless guy sitting outside of David Jones. You won’t miss the $5, but it might make all the difference to the homeless person as to whether or not they can afford a meal at McDonald’s. Don’t have any notes on you? Then what about that loose change in your pocket that is likely to end up in your sofa cushions? And if you can’t afford that either, maybe you can afford to donate a few hours to an organisation that helps the homeless or even just stop and ask the person if they are okay, so they know that someone cares.
I know a lot of people say they won’t give money to the homeless because they’d probably just spend it on drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. Yeah, they might do that. But I believe that we who are well off don’t have the right to judge people who have it rough. If a cigarette or a beer helps them cope better with their depressing situation, I’m not going to begrudge them that. I might not agree with it and I wouldn’t make the same choice if it were me, but I do think we have to respect their autonomy.
When G and I gave Nikolas his care package, he looked as if he were about to cry. G commented on that later and I explained to him that it had probably been a long time since anyone had acknowledged his presence, let alone done something nice for him. Think about it: If you are sleeping on the streets, then you probably don’t have any friends or family you can turn to for help. You already feel isolated and alone. But being homeless, you are reduced to the lowest rung on the social hierarchy and people treat you like you are invisible, just it makes them uncomfortable. How depressing and dehumanising that must be.
I make it a point to say a few words to each homeless person I give money to. I might wish them a good day or ask if they are okay or if they need anything else. It doesn’t take much to let another human being know that you care, even if you can’t fix their problems.
The other thing that troubles me is that there appears to be limited help for homeless people who are trying to turn their lives around. Nikolas is just one example. I’m sure he is not the only one out there who is trying to get off drugs who is effectively driven away from services for the homeless. (Homelessness Australia has a lot of statistics on the homeless, if anyone is interested in numbers.)
And it’s not just Australia. The problem is just as bad or worse in America. Nikolas reminded me of a young woman named Sylvia, whom I encountered in Houston, TX some years ago. She came up to ask for some money and I gave her $5. She asked if she could have an extra 65 cents so that she could afford to get a foot-long sandwich at Subway and explained she hadn’t eaten in two days and was very hungry. I ended up giving her a lot more than that and asked her why she was homeless, where she was sleeping, etc.
Sylvia said she had been sleeping under a bridge, but that the night before, the police had come to kick out all the homeless people from under the bridge and confiscated everyone’s belongings, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back. Another woman who was in the park overheard the conversation and it turned out that she did a lot of volunteer work with Houston area homeless organisations. She asked Sylvia if she didn’t know about the shelters or the soup kitchen. Sylvia said she did know about them, but she couldn’t go there anymore because she’d been off drugs for a year and the shelters and soup kitchen was where all her former “friends”, all drug addicts or dealers, went. And of course, she couldn’t be around them and still stay clean. She was trying very hard to keep her life in order and find a job so that she could afford to go back to college and finish a degree that she had started before she got mixed up with drugs.
Like Nikolas here in Melbourne, there was simply no help available for Sylvia that didn’t require her to put herself at risk of becoming addicted to drugs again. So she slept on the street and had to beg for money in order to eat.
At least in Australia, there are a lot more programs aimed at preventing homelessness and helping people who are on the down and out to get back on their feet than there are in America and that is definitely something I wish America did more of. But even though Australia is better than America in this regard, there is still room for improvement.
There is absolutely no reason in the world why an able-bodied young man like Nikolas should be sleeping on the streets. Why isn’t someone helping him to conquer his addiction? He clearly has the motivation to do it, but that’s a hard road to walk by yourself. Why isn’t someone helping him to find a job and safe, affordable housing? He’s willing to work, but probably needs some help getting started in a job search. Australia offers so much assistance for refugees and asylum seekers, but can’t seem to find the resources to help Australians who need a hand up. The same goes for America.
(Ironically, on the night we met Nikolas, he was sleeping under a sign that said “The City of Yarra welcomes asylum seekers and refugees.” A week later, Nikolas had moved on, apparently kicked out by some city official, since a notice about leaving personal belongings on the steps has since been posted where he had been sleeping.)
I can’t change Australia’s policies on helping the homeless (though the federal government has recently made available $320 million for homeless services), but I figure I can at least do something myself for individual homeless people when I encounter them and I can try to draw awareness to the issue, which is somewhat the point of this post. I hope that the next time you see a homeless person, wherever you live, that you’ll stop to consider if there is any help or kindness that you could offer that person. Do something, but please don’t look away.