The other night at work, while preparing to do a sweaty and rushed bin run outside the urban gutters of Melbourne Central, a work friend ‘G’ and I conceived a plan to drop off an untouched tub of rice to any one of the resident homeless campers of the complex (our goodie bag also included beef, mild salsa and suspicious Mexican beans). We dashed off with benevolence in our bones, giggling even, ‘what a thing to do on an otherwise boring work night!’ ‘why didn’t we think of this before?!’
To our surprise we could not locate a single one of the day-time homeless folk to be seen, even after a thorough lap of the whole block or two. ‘How strange,’ we sighed, exasperated already (the little expedition was not going as had been enthusiastically planned), ‘where could they be?’ Where could they be indeed? Unfortunately not much thought was devoted to this (very important) question before our minds were conveniently occupied by distractions of having to get back to the shop, the pressures of time, the lone team member waiting for us to return. The heavy bags of food weighed heavy disappointment in our hands.
It wasn’t until later that weekend that I came back to this question, and the uncomfortable actuality of that question: that the routines of the homeless, that we presumed to know so well in their constancy, were not so constant after all. The irony wasn’t lost on us. Though the homeless are easily disregarded (literally) day-to-day when it is unpalatable or simply inconvenient to devote attention to their plight; when we deigned to seek them out, we expected them to be there, and so were suitably shocked when they weren’t.
The fact is this: there is no physical human presence that we consciously or subconsciously ignore more. It’s a curious relationship we have with beggars on the street, one that we certainly endeavour to avoid in public and private discussion. It might not even be a real, interpersonal relationship between two people in the way that we know it, the beggar and those who pass her. In our society, out of all the different ‘categories’ of people – presidents, CEOs, paralympians – the homeless are probably the one kind most people go through an entire lifetime without ever having an actual conversation with.
So what does a recognition of homelessness in our lives actually require? Those who are brave enough to stomach the reality – and not just airbrush it into the background of our privileged, ever busy lives – might duly and admirably commit to soup kitchens and community projects. But how about the rest of us? Are we already culturally and psychologically sensitized to ignore them? Or do we consciously acknowledge it and toss them our spare change when we can? Are some people more sensitive than others to the presence and plight of the homeless?
For starters, I wonder if it is necessary to feign ignorance of the less unfortunate in order to carry on with our lives as we know it – as educated, middle-class, students/professionals who have made a way of life for ourselves – these people on the edge of the road are the anomalies who exist outside of the world that we have created for ourselves and live in. This is fairly easy to debunk: most would agree that recognition of homelessness and first world comfort are not mutually exclusive concepts: we can accept the reality that 105,000 Australians live on the street on any given night when we ourselves revel in relative luxury every night. However, this reality does become relegated to – where it remains – the personal and collective subconscious. If local impoverishment was at the forefront of our minds all the time, we wouldn’t be able to make personal shopping decisions daily without second thought, and certainly wouldn’t be able to carry on with our lives without being crippled with the heaviness of global suffering levels.
I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a certain effort to genuinely care about the homeless. There is a huge difference between being concerned about the hardships of the homeless in an abstract, community-social problem way, and actually going out of your way to engage with one on your many travails during the school or work day. And not doing the latter is not always an indicator of our unwillingness to care about those less fortunate – the seminal Joshua Bell social experiment points out the difficulties we have in paying attention to our immediate surroundings when our minds are far away. But it is undeniably very difficult for most socialised individuals to willingly initiate conversation, or even respond to the entreaties of a homeless person without experiencing the squirmish desire to get away.
Why is this? One factor I would suggest is the public eye: it seems like in any unwarranted interaction, the homeless person and I become centre-stage actors on a stage where our dialogue, ‘please help’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ become unwelcomely amplified, and passersby look on in vaguely concealed discomfort and relief. Another factor is the immediate association with mental illness – and this is not an unfounded assumption at all. Recent RMIT studies found that 15 per cent of people had a mental illness before becoming homeless, and 16 per cent developed a mental illness after becoming homeless. That makes roughly 30% of the homeless population sufferers of mental disorder. Obviously socio-economic and health factors play a primary role in homelessness, but that doesn’t stop us from setting a mental barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, helped along by allusions of psychosis. Of course, the last factor is sheer stinginess. Frugality can be explained by any set of values; most commonly being the ‘Every man for himself’ mentality, that everyone has to fight for his/her own survival, and some will inevitably fall between the cracks.
So clearly, the choice to care is not restricted to character, but rather personal consciousness. Being conscious of a person or situation (especially one that is troubling or compelling) makes demands on our attention, energy and conscience, it divests us of the choice not to care. And once we care, we find that we cannot not care.
So the simple message to take away from this? There is nothing simple about homelessness, but if you find that there is something beneath the simple brush-off we are all well-practiced in that stirs up a flurry of discomfort, it may be that the half-conscious, half-obliviousness you afford the homeless needs sorting out.