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Just another day on the streets for the homeless

By Lyn Bender - posted Thursday, 16 October 2014


This week is anti-poverty week. For the homeless every week is poverty week.

In 2011 on the latest Australian census night, 105,000 people were officially homeless in our wealthy nation. On any given night, that is one in two hundred Australians. This is a mere snapshot of the pointy end of poverty.

If the poor are to be always with us, the homeless become conspicuous at night.

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Some doze under blankets, others sit on flattened cardboard. Caps and paper coffee cups are laid out hopefully awaiting coins. Some have scrawled on cardboard placards:

'My name is Paul. I am homeless. Can you spare some loose change, so that I can get a bed for the night?' Or with less biography, a cap labelled 'salary cap.'

Insomniac 19th century writer, Charles Dickens prowled the London streets in the wee hours, and noted the plight of the poor. He drew many of his characters, from these walks. He also sought to confront the gentry with the terrible structural plight of the poor.

I am walking the streets because I am restless and because I wish to complete my quota of 10,000 steps per day. At the magic number of 10,000, I can leave the streets, for the security of my city apartment. I am privileged. I have a place to call home where I can welcome family and friends, or rest in sweet solitude.

Some nights and days, I avert my eyes. Seeing the destitute disrupts me. I feel guilt and unease. Some evenings I stop to have a conversation and drop a coin or two. What do the homeless see? From the ground they see approaching and departing feet. The colourful, laughing people with places to go - living 'other' lives- Monday to Friday well heeled commuters bustle past, clutching takeaway coffee cups. The street supplicants remain invisible unless you look downward.

Bob aged 28 has been homeless for three years. Bob says he can't get un-employment benefits because he has no address. He sleeps on the streets five out of seven days. The police often move him on or tell him to take down his sign. He shows me where he will sleep tonight with a wave of his hand at the adjacent doorway. The police don't usually disturb him in sleep He tells me the 'cold biters'- those who harass the public; the ones who stand up and 'intimidate' the 'normals'- make it hard for the rest of them. I ask him if he fears other homeless people. No it's more often 'the normal people' who are abusive. He fears becoming one of those who have been homeless for twenty years or longer.

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These outsiders to affluence, the discarded destitute sit near the doorways of the supermarket or fast food outlets, with their begging bowls. 'Please give me money,' one woman pleads as I leave the checkout. She is carrying cups of cold chips.' I have been given three lots of chips already. I can't eat any more chips.' The conventional wisdom is to offer food. Otherwise 'those people' spend money on booze and drugs. But the homeless don't have kitchens with fridges. Like the commuters and passers by, they need conventional currency. Who can cart around supplies for the week?

The short-term homeless are distinctive, because they still cling to the preservation of dignity. A young woman in her 20's tells me she has been homeless for six weeks. 'I am trying to get money for a backpackers' Laura tells me she has escaped from domestic violence and is on waiting lists. She is low priority because she has no children. Laura has tried all the places that I suggest. A middle-aged man comes across with a number for a local church. Laura is determined and articulate. But many others are shunned.

On public transport they look conspicuously dishevelled and the scent can be intense. The homeless have a stale distinct smell. They carry the odour of sleeping, in unwashed or infrequently changed clothes. A train driver announced. 'Apologies, passengers, for the shocking stink in carriage one. That person has just left. If any one has anything to spray that will help a lot.' We, in carriage three who have been spared from the discomfort of malodourous carriage one, are relieved at our luck. The driver soon announces that a Good Samaritan has sprayed some pong masking perfume.

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About the Author

Lyn Bender is a psychologist in private practice. She is a former manager of Lifeline Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

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