Are we helpless when it comes to the homeless?

Melbourne’s Trolley Man and the tragic case of the baby drowned at Surfers Paradise are a stark reminder of Australia’s homelessness crisis. But maybe a little help can give a lot of hope. 



On the steps of the train he stands, scraggly and unwashed. Blonde hair matted above a pockmarked face beset with recently scratched sores, red and open. He is young, this dirty man-child, and vulnerable, desperately clutching a sleeping bag that is as grime-covered as he is. He peers nervously at his disinterested audience, eyes bouncing around the carriage like a sparrow caught in a box. He delivers the usual sales pitch in a low, flat voice. He is from out of town, doesn’t have family to support him, desperately needs to scrape together some money for a bed at some shelter somewhere. We’ve heard it all before. His plea falls into our carriage and is sucked up by uncomfortable silence. No one looks at him, the moving view of rubbish strewn railway lines and the graffiti bedecked walls of industry a sight far worthier of their time.

I would normally be the first to turn away, emotionally cocooned in the belief that giving money to beggars perpetuates the problem, but today for some reason I watch him. I look for his eyes and wonder what terrible confluence of circumstances bought him to this juncture. I don’t quite bring myself to find out, although some untapped well of concern inside me nearly asks him to sit down and tell me his story. I am sure if I was a better person I would. I rehearse it in my head, but the words never get past my lips. I am not quite ready to engage completely, and I am fearful of making a scene.

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It is difficult to confront such despair, and, I think, the impossibility of solving a problem that has human behaviour at its core makes us impatient. No matter how big the welfare state, no matter how much public housing and support, there will always be some people who cannot cope with life. Life is a bell curve, a normal distribution, and there will always be people in the lower 15%. It’s easy to victim-blame. It is so common, a normal human habit, and so erroneous, that psychologists even have a phrase for it. They call it the fundamental attribution error. We make ourselves feel better by believing that the downtrodden in our society must have got there through their own volition. A result of their mistakes and choices, a consequence of their own flaws. This thinking keeps us safe from having to take responsibility for the suffering of others. And of course, no doubt serious mistakes may well have been made, but luck plays an overwhelming role in where you end up in life. Who your parents are, what community you are born into, what your genetics determine and how your brain is wired all factor in to our ability to “do life well”. None of these are choices. It’s random luck. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, you don’t choose your bootstraps.

Today I gave the disheveled young man five dollars. It’s not a lot of money, and perhaps it will do him more harm than good, as rightwing conservatives and some charities claim. Perhaps this unkempt pockmarked kid will end up buying drugs with the proceedings of his begging, instead of paying for a bed. And maybe it was just a rehashed sob story with no substance. But even so, maybe just the fact that a stranger smiled at him, took a chance on him and treated him not with disdain but like a fellow human being on a dark and difficult road, touched something in him, somewhere. Maybe that moment of connection will do more than the money. Maybe, just maybe, it will spark a revolution of self-care in him one day.


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