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Homelessness- the human side of homelessness

Today we left Melbourne after a fabulous 5 days. It was busy and a whole lot of fun.

I think we did over 100,000 steps and saw a lot of what Melbourne has to offer. The buildings and history make it a truly fascinating city. One thing that struck us all was the amount of homeless people we saw. It was so sad, the weather is freezing and there are people on every street and every corner hoping for a few dollars.

Now I know the topic of the homeless is controversial.

Is it choice?

Is it the result of bad choices?

Are most of the homeless out to rip you off?

Are they all alcoholics or drug users?

Is there really any excuse to be homeless in Australia?

Fact is I don’t know. I have never been in that situation and I am thankful every day for that. I have done a small amount of volunteering for a local group who provides connection and friendship to the homeless and houseless and one thing I have learnt is that it is not always as it seems.

Yes, there are some who expect a lot for nothing and are stuck in a very vicious cycle, many of them don’t want to escape it. But I can tell you now many of those people you walk past on the street are not there by choice and they are not much different to you and I. A bit of bad luck, often a few things happening in quick succession and they find themselves somewhere they never thought they would be, living on the street.

Well last night as we were walking home from dinner I did something I have never done before.

Homelessness- the human side of homelessness
Homelessness- the human side of homelessness

On our way to dinner we saw a homeless man sitting at a very busy intersection. He held a sign. It explained that after working for 26 years he had become unemployed after an accident. He was asking for money, $45 for a nights accomodation, but more than that he wanted a job. He had a HC licence and an excavator ticket and 26 years experience.

I can’t tell you what it was about him that struck me, why he impacted more than the others I saw. We walked past him, not even acknowledging him, his head was down, looking at the ground and our eyes and minds were focused on where we were going ….. to have dinner.

As we walked on we talked about him though, my daughter said she had seen him on facebook and it seemed his story was true. Some of his friends had vouched for him and the fact he was looking for work not just a hand out was often spoken about in the posts.

I felt helpless. What could we do??

I am not proud to admit it but judgement also kicked in. If we give him money will he spend it on alcohol or drugs? Is he genuine? As I walked on I realised this wasn’t really the point.

The point was he was human, just like me and you, and he was in a really tough place, one none of us would want to be in. But still what could we do??

I often wondered as we were walking around Melbourne what impact electronic banking, eftpos, payWave, Apple Pay etc has had on the homeless. It used to be so easy to drop a few coins or a couple of dollars in a hat but now we often have no cash at all. This has to have had an impact. I had no cash to give him, how many others were the same?

The whole time through dinner I thought about him. I spoke to my family about him. I tried to think about what I could do, not all the things I couldn’t. I could go back and at least offer him a resume. I could easily do that. I can write a resume. It wont change his life but if he doesn’t have one it might help with one piece of the complicated puzzle I am sure he finds himself in. It might help him find a job!!

We weren’t sure though, we were divided.

Just leave it it isn’t any of our business. What if you offend him. He might already have a resume.

He might not have access to a computer to even print it.

All the reasons came up as to why we should just walk away. It is easy to do that. To go back to our comfy lives and make the excuses we need to make ourselves feel alright about doing so.

I know me being comfortable or successful doesn’t take anything from him, I couldn’t be poor enough to make a difference to him, there was absolutely no need to feel guilty about what I am lucky enough to have, but I couldn’t help wondering what could I do.

We stood out the front of the restaurant we had eaten in still wondering, “do we just turn and walk the other way, go home and get on with our lives, or do we go back and risk getting abused, or yelled at, or offending him, or maybe just embarrassing ourselves.” We went backwards and forwards.

Do we……don’t we.

Should we ….. shouldn’t we.

Then it dawned on me. My soul was whispering at me to go back, my ego was yelling at me not to. Suddenly it hit me, the biggest reason not to go back, the biggest thing stopping me, was that I was scared of being embarrassed. Scared of being embarrassed if he abused me sure but more than that, I was scared of what others walking past, people I didn’t even know, might think of me. I’m not proud to admit any of that but as soon as I realised that was what was going on within me I knew I had to turn back and go and speak to him.

As we walked back and got closer to the intersection he was sitting at I got nervous. What would I say?? What would he say?? What would others think??

I even found myself almost wishing he wasn’t there any more!!

But there he was, sitting exactly where he was an hour or so earlier and I stuck with my plan. I crossed the road and walked straight up to him, I knelt on the pavement in front of him “hi mate”. I still can’t believe I said that!!! Mate!!!! How Aussie and not something I would normally say but they were the words that came out.

“Looks like you are doing it a bit tough.”

He looked up. WOW the look of defeat, the hopelessness struck me harder than any abuse he could have thrown at me.

You could tell he was once a proud man who had come across hard times, harder than many of us can ever imagine and hope to ever experience.

He said “yes it is a bit tough but I’ll get there.”

I said “look I couldn’t help but notice your sign, you say you are looking for work. I don’t have any cash on me to help you out tonight.” He immediately said “don’t worry thanks for stopping.”

I pointed to his sign and asked “are you serious about finding work?”

He quickly responded “yes that is what I want more than anything.”

We continued to talk about his work and his situation. As we chatted something happened.

Firstly crouched down on the ground in the middle of Melbourne with people streaming past us I no longer cared what anyone thought. I was having a conversation with a really polite man, it didn’t mater where he lived. Secondly the light started to return just a little to his eyes. He sparked up, he even smiled a little and sat a little taller.

I asked if he had a resume, to which he answered “no, I have never had one, I have never needed one”. Turns out he was employed by the same company for all his working life!!! When he last secured a job you didn’t need a resume, you got an opportunity and you proved yourself, he thought that would be enough now but after years of trying he realised it wasn’t.

So I explained that I used to write resumes for a living and if he was interested I would like to write one for him. I said I know it wont be the magic answer and I wish I could do more but at least it might help. It might erase one hurdle he had been encountering.

He was so thankful.

“Well that certainly wouldn’t hurt” he said a few times. He said everyone presumes he is a no hoper, a criminal or a druggy, he feels invisible and like the system has beaten him (his words).

We chatted more and exchanged numbers. I will call him later in the week and get all his information so I can write him a resume but here is what else he shared with me.

He can’t get a job without an address, he can’t get a permanent address without a job. He went to enquire about one job and had to hide his swag etc as turning up to an interview with a swag and shopping bag or two full of your possessions is a dead give away to being homeless. When he returned they were stolen. Everything he owned!!!! His bedding, his clothes etc all gone. He has no steal capped boots or hi vis work gear as they were stolen as well.

Each of these things seem such small challenges but put them together and they are huge. We talked about some possible solutions, I don’t know if any of them will help. It is such a vicious cycle. No wonder they loose hope, no wonder they become bitter and angry.

After our conversation which must have gone on for 15 or 20 minutes you could tell he was thankful but here is what I think he was more thankful for, the thing that touched him the most. Someone, maybe the first person all day, maybe all week, maybe even for months, had stopped and treated him like a human being, he was seen and heard, isn’t that what we all want?? Isn’t that what we all deserve??

I don’t know the answer and the challenge is that each homeless person is as unique as you and I with stories and situations that are just as unique. I do however think it is worth reminding ourselves that those people you walk past on the street are human, in the past they may have had a job and a house and responsibilities just like you and I. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

For at least a few minutes yesterday Scott felt seen, he felt valued. He didn’t feel looked down upon, judged and ignored by both individuals and society.

Just as the problems are unique and the stories are individual the answers are just as unique and possibly even more complicated. The solution needs to be multifaceted and me stopping on the street or the one man we saw giving a homeless man $50 as a nights accomodation was $45 wont change much but doesn’t everyone have the right to feel seen, heard and valued??

Does anyone really choose to sleep on the street on a cold Melbourne night? And if the choice is made for them and they are faced with that unthinkable reality are they any less human??

I don’t think so.

Jodi Reeves


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