Just feeling the need to put this out there. It’s a bit heavy, so feel free to skip it, which is partly what this is about.
Melbourne would not be alone these days in experiencing an ever-increasing and troubling homeless problem. And that is part of the problem – we can all see it, but most of us just keep on walking by. I have been one of those people too, so I’m certainly not trying to make you feel guilty as you read this. I simply want more of us to start thinking about this problem and what can be done about it. Are we ok with the fact that some people find themselves on the fringe of society and then get swept aside as if they don’t exist any longer?
Sometimes it takes a personal experience to make you evaluate your past behaviour. That happened to me tonight, as I was rushing between shifts at work. I only had 20 minutes to get something to eat and the local KFC comes in handy in these situations, so I made my way there to get a quick bite.
It was as busy and messy as it always is but I was still able to see a familiar face among the groups of mostly young and noisy people. A tired-looking man, who has an ever-increasing weathered face each time I see him. He is clearly homeless. He quietly sits in one corner of the KFC and waits for others to leave scraps of food behind. He isn’t picky – he can’t afford to be. He checks each bag left on the tables, lifts each drink cup to see if there’s any left, and yes, he rummages through the rubbish bins on a regular basis when there’s nothing left behind on the tables. But we all go about our lives and he just blends into the scene. Maybe we are so absorbed in our worlds that we don’t notice him, or maybe we just don’t want to notice him so we don’t have to think about it.
I have had a previous opportunity to help this man and for some unknown reason, I got nervous and didn’t do it. I wanted to buy him some food so he wouldn’t have to do what he usually does but I had a thought that he might not like me doing that. Maybe he would be too embarrassed to accept it, or maybe he would get upset? I sat there then for what seemed like a long time over-thinking the entire situation and then just got up and went home. I instantly felt guilty and wished I had acted differently.
So, when I saw him again tonight, I knew I had to act differently. I didn’t buy much for myself tonight but I did get an extra serve of chips. I walked up to him, smiled, and asked if he wanted them. He looked at me, smiled, and accepted the chips. He thanked me, and turned back to his collection of leftovers and mostly empty drink cups. He continues to look as if he is deteriorating, but I suppose that’s the way it is when you are homeless.
I didn’t do much, and it certainly didn’t cost me much, but I had to do something tonight. I was compelled. Anything to help has to be better than what homeless people usually see. It must be so hard to be ignored. We are social creatures and isolation is one of the toughest things to experience, yet this is what we are doing with homeless people.
I have no answers to this complex and troubling problem, but I have to believe that we can at least try to be doing something to help. It’s not realistic to say that you can help every single homeless person, but maybe if more of us started giving them an act of kindness, it could make a small difference. To not ignore them, to offer whatever help you can, it has to be better than what we’re doing right now.
Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as once saying “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”. We need to think about if we are happy to be that society that ignores its most vulnerable members.