It was on Twitter the other night that I discovered that a very well-respected Melbourne man was on the verge of becoming homeless. This is a man older than me, a journalist lacking the public profile of many, but with the universal respect of his peers within the political field. An intellectual with a rigorous attention to detail and with a knowledge of Australian politics over the last 30 years odd that is virtually unrivalled. A man of dignity who was brought undone by things I know nothing about, but clearly unable to find an income despite his experience. I read quite poignant tweets, the response from people all over Australia offering him a bed, or giving him suggestions for work. It was lovely, but also very sad.
He’s now off the air. His account has gone silent. Presumably these last couple of nights he has had to fend for himself somewhere in the Melbourne suburbs.
I don’t know why, but this affected me much more than many similar tales. Maybe because I saw it play out across my Twitter feed in real-time. Maybe it was the confounded despair in his voice: how can this be? Maybe it was the response of so many good people to his plight – and there are many good people remaining. And maybe it was the general shock that a man such as this – respected, intelligent, articulate – could end up homeless. Probably it was all of that, but on top of that is my situation. Unlike most, if not all the people who responded to him, I’ve been there. Technically I’m still listed as being homeless, though I have a roof over my head.
I don’t think about my homelessness much. Most of the time I’m too busy scrambling to get by, but otherwise I can’t see myself as the classic homeless person, because I’m not.
At one time it looked distinctly possible that I might end up under a bridge, and it could still happen. I suspect and hope the worst is over for me, but know absolutely it will become very real should that ever eventuate.
Truth of the matter is that most of us are conditioned to view homeless people in a certain way. No matter how liberal and sympathetic we are we see homeless people in the street, and while there might be a momentary pang it’s not long before they blend into the background. I’m not being critical. We can’t help everyone (by ourselves), and we have our own concerns to worry about. And though we might not like to admit it, we see homeless people as different to us – different not just by virtue of the fact they have nowhere to live, different somehow in themselves – as if they have a flaw that led to this, or were victims of tragedy we cannot contemplate.
That’s why it’s so shocking to find ‘one of us’ suddenly in a situation of homelessness. This is when the utter pity of it is brought home to the average person. What sort of world is it when an intelligent and worthy person is so un-valued that he becomes homeless?
I too have felt myself to be different, and there’s good reason for that. I’ve learnt a lot over the last 18 months. Though there aren’t a lot of government services, there are community groups and the like that have been very helpful to me. It’s a chastening experience, in the first place knowing that you need help like this, and then more shocking in a way to look around and see the people you are sharing this journey with.
I remain a very competent human being. I retain my vigour and energy. Despite all, my belief in the future and myself remains undimmed. I’m resilient and occasionally belligerent, and am capable of fending for myself in most ways.
There are others like me, but many more I’ve encountered seemingly have gone beyond the situation where they can look after themselves. Now, I’m seeing the extremes because I’m visiting the places where the extremes gather, and many of these people are what I would call the institutionalised homeless. Whatever their situation was before, they have now become reliant on welfare to survive. Whatever vigour they once had is long gone, their eyes are dimmed and their minds vague. They form a community of sorts, affably getting together for the free feeds put on by the likes of the Salvos.
It was enough for me to see this to know that I had to get clear of this life.
Of course there are many others hidden out there homeless, some of whom may be working beside you. It becomes a state of being, as well as a state of life.
Like I said, I’ve never really thought of myself as homeless because I’m proud and capable still, and because I’ve not had to endure the worst of it. The little I experienced though, and what I have witnessed, was enough for me to become bolshie about the whole situation. In a time when a heartless federal government is pulling services (from an already inadequate framework) these people need all the help they can get. Previously I was like most people, was aware of it, was sympathetic to it, but it occupied a place at the back of my mind. Having experienced it I’ve become politicised. If ever I was to get involved this would be one of my platforms.
I hold the old-fashioned view that the mark of a society is how it treats its least fortunate. It’s been a while since any government in Australia has got top marks for that, but this government is an abject fail. It suits their political narrative – homeless people are leaners.
Politics these days is smoke and mirrors, less about what you do and more about the narrative you weave. The fact of the matter is that there are strong economic arguments to justify helping those in need. If we help people to become self-sufficient then the burden on the state lifts. Unfortunately that’s not the story that Abbott and co want to tell – instead they adhere to a mean-spirited philosophy that says we have been ‘too trusting’, that we have given too many ‘the benefit of the doubt’ when we shouldn’t have, that this government will help the ‘lifters’, and the ‘leaners’ can please themselves. Truly we have a diabolical government.
Truth of the matter is that many now will never be ‘productive’ in the government’s eyes because they are too far gone. We should help and provide for them because we share their humanity, and because we are no better than they are, just more lucky. Many more can be helped, but there seem limited pathways. This is what has to change. More services, better managed – right now what there is is scant, a lot of it is poorly directed, dysfunctional, or rorted by the so-called providers.
Things have gone too far when good people with a much to contribute end up on the street. There’s something wrong when that happens.