Friday, November 21, 2008

Homelessness: They’re People and we should acknowledge that.

Only a couple of weeks ago I passed a young man sitting in a shop doorway. He had a sign in front of him, written on a piece of cardboard, asking for spare change. He was sitting cross-legged on a small blanket. Being in a hurry, I passed by, noticing that he had his gaze firmly fixed in his feet, or perhaps the ground in front of him.

As I walked further down the street, not more than twenty or thirty metres, it was like that last image had caught me like a bungee rope. I had very little money on me, but as I got closer to the street corner, the bungee rope reached its longest point and I stopped. A battle raged inside me, one side looking a the 85 cents in my hand and saying that giving a paltry amount as this would be a bit cheap and insulting, and the other saying that it would be better than giving nothing.

What really drew me back was the image of someone who could not look at the world, along with the fact that my 85 cents was better in his pocket than mine. It might be the difference between eating something or going hungry. I placed my money at his feet, but that was not enough. Just to throw money at someone does not acknowledge their existence as a person, it merely acknowledges a ‘problem’.

So, in addition to giving my fairly inadequate contribution, I said hello and got him to look me in the eye to make sure that he knew I was seeing him as a person, and not just a faceless member of the homeless. The more I thought about this, the more I believe this was far more important than the money I gave. He had been sitting on the ground unable to look people in the eye, probably somewhat ashamed of his predicament, while the world walked by. Mostly ignoring him or wishing he didn’t exist to jog their conscience.

As my wife says (she’s quite wise you know), some people are damaged, and it is the responsibility of society to look after such people. They may have mental problems, be traumatised, or in some way be unable to fit into the society the majority of us have created. And because we have created this society we have a responsibility to care for those we have left behind.

Such people are not, as some would like to day, a drain on society. They should not be ignored or hidden away as some would like, often municipal councils who see than as a blight on their vision of what their locality should look like. This is simply ignoring reality and hoping it will go away. It is a harsh view that does no justice to us as human beings. The idea that we apply a ‘survival of the fittest’ ethos in this case is a flawed and ultimately flexible idea that civilized societies should see for what it is – the arrogance of those privileged and well-off who have defined what the ‘fittest’ should be.

Now, I’m not talking about those who are commonly referred to as ‘dole-bludgers’. I’m talking about those who find themselves out on the street unable to find a home. I would be happy to pay an extra cent or two in the dollar tax to help homeless people. What is that to me? A few beers each week? It could kick in above a certain income threshold. This obsession with reducing tax ignores what it can be used for to benefit our society as a whole, and relies on the ‘market’ to decide where money goes. Well the ‘market’ would like the problem of homelessness to disappear and appears to view it as an inconvenience. It appears unable or unwilling to help solve the problem, suggesting it is a problem for government. Hence the need to use tax revenues.

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