Homelessness in Geelong: looking beyond what you see.
It was early in the morning: late enough to have cafes brewing coffee but early enough for businesses to still be closed.
I, the writer of this article, was rambling up Bellarine Street, Geelong.
Questions were going through my mind: which nearby café would I visit for coffee? Where could I find the flakiest and most delicious croissants?
Then I heard some ladies yelling out.
“Get away from here,” screamed an old lady with an angry expression.
It sounded like someone was attacking them.
I looked around, no-one was.
They seemed to be yelling at an inanimate object. Or what seemed like an inanimate stationary object.
From closer inspection I saw a man asleep in front of the Salvation Army. He had a blanket consisting of cardboard which hardly covered his feet, pulled over half his face instead. You could make out a beanie.
He looked dead. Turned out he wasn;t but the bottle of something next to him testified to active use. It was a possibility that the liquid in the bottle was turpentine, that’s how strong it smelled.
I walked up to the man, and now I could really smell the potent smell of alcohol. He was asleep, blocking the doorway of the Salvation Army.
The old ladies stared at him hatefully and looked at me warily. He was asleep. What could I do? Did I wake him and say, “How are you?”
I walked away.
Walked up the road to the café I was planning on going to.
Suddenly I couldn’t just waltz straight into a café and spend money on luxuries. Suddenly I was stirred to walk back to that man, and see if I could do anything for him, I didn’t know what.
Suddenly, I was overcome with this burning desire to try and preserve this man’s human dignity. Or do something, anything, to take away this uncomfortable feeling I was having – the feeling that makes me feel guilty or convicted because, compared to so many people, our lives are easy.
Even if we’re unemployed, we’ll get Centrelink benefits. There’s always possibilites. But some people – even in Geelong – have fallen “past the cracks.” Sometimes a person can’t even attain – or organize – their eligible government resources – because they literally don’t have the gumption, resources or stability to do it.
I walked back to the Salvation Army. The man was still asleep (he actually looked dead, to be honest) and the women were still ferociously eyeballing him.
I decided to talk to them. What the scoop?
“The police are coming soon,” they explained.
In a harsh tone they admonished: ‘don’t wake him.’
I didn’t know what to say. I said something back to the ladies but it was the wrong thing.
What was the right thing, anyway? – “Don’t call the police?”
No, I could understand that they felt the authorities needed to be alerted.
But what concerned me was the hateful way the ladies glared at this passed-out homeless man, who was oblivious to their animosity.
Their stare said: You are a blight to the otherwise fine Geelong streets. Even though you’re hiding in the corner of the Salvation Army doorstep you don’t deserve to be here. Go away.
This was what upset me. It’s this attitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not Mary Poppins the idealist. Sometimes authorities need to be called in, and we need to act with wisdom, boundaries and justice.
But it’s the attitudes: it’s our attitudes that can change – improve – situations more than money can, although obviously the homelessness and housing sector lacks resources.
Our attitudes are what make us compassionate to people, even and especially to people who don’t ‘deserve’ it (otherwise, how would it be compassion?)
In this situation, our attitudes are powerful.
With this man, the one passed out drunk, how do we know his situation?
We don’t. And even if we do, does that mean we have the right to pass judgement on him, because we live in ordered worlds with safety and our names imprinted on work rosters and our EFTPOS cards full of money to buy whatever new food we so desire from the supermarket.
Later that evening – on an unrelated occasion – I met a softly spoken and meek homeless man. He was gracious and appreciative but most of all was polite. Very polite.
This time he was carrying a tartan blanket over his shoulder, not cardboard.
It was the same man I had seen that morning.