It’s hard to know how to respond when you see a homeless person. Do you ignore them and just keep walking (they probably aren’t really homeless in the first place and just trying to scam you)? Do you buy them some food, cause you don’t want them to buy drugs or alcohol? Do you give them money? Do you stop and chat?
I don’t think there is ever really a clear cut answer as to how to respond. People will disagree as to what the right thing to do is. At Urban Seed we try and challenge people to think about it from a different point of view. Do we really know what it is like to be homeless and what you might need if you are homeless? Would it matter if we gave them money and they went and bought drugs or alcohol? What do we buy with our money? Does anyone tell us how we are to spend our money? What would it mean if we acknowledged the homeless person? If we smiled at them? Talked to them about their day?
Roman Krznaric (a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. A founding faculty member of The School of Life in London, who advises organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change), believes that empathy and empathic thinking can create social change. He says that empathy is more than just sympathy. It is the ability to powerfully imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of another. In a recent blog post he challenges us to empathise with the telesales caller. He suggests that by merely imagining what the job might be like for them (made easier for him as he once was a telesales caller himself) and engaging in conversation with them will powerful revolutionise the world.
“So while part of me wants to immediately press the red button and end the call, I do my best to focus on the caller and treat them with decency. In an effort to make a personal connection, I sometimes find out their name and where they are phoning from, which can lead to surprising – if usually short – conversations about their lives, and my own. I nearly always tell them that I know what their job is like, because I’ve done it too, and I wish them well with the rest of their calls. Imagining myself into their lives and showing a little respect is the least I can do to bridge our faceless digital divide.
Such brief encounters with strangers may, at first glance, seem trivial affairs. But I believe they are the beginnings of a revolution that can weave the world together into an invisible tapestry of human connection.”
What would it mean if were to apply this same thinking and acting when we see a homeless person? Maybe next time you think just acknowledging or smiling at a homeless person is pointless act, you might think twice.
It is important to understand what empathy is and is not. If you see a homeless person living under a bridge you may feel sorry for him and give him some money as you pass by. That is pity or sympathy, not empathy. If, on the other hand, you make an effort to look at the world through his eyes, to consider what life is really like for him, and perhaps have a conversation that transforms him from a faceless stranger into a unique individual, then you are empathising.
I’d just finished work, it had been a big day. I’d spent the last hour talking with a drunk lady in the laneway who needed help moving and finding a new place to stay.
I was walking up Bourke St on my way home via some bookshops when a beggar stopped me and asked for money. He said he needed some money to so he could a find place to stay that night.
I have a rather bad habit of not carrying any cash. I said “Sorry I don’t have anything on me.” For some reason I always want to show beggars my wallet to make them realise I’m not lying.
The man looked at me and said quite accusingly, “Yes you do. You just don’t want to. You and I both know that you could walk to an ATM and get out money right now. You just don’t want to.” He was right.
I remembered this man from a few days ago, I had given him $10 for the same reason. I fumbled out this explanation, but this did not satisfy him. “It’s people like you that make people like me steal and mug people. I don’t know how you sleep at night.” He was getting angrier and angrier by the minute. At this point I decided the best option was for me to keep walking. I said, “Look. Sorry, I just don’t have any cash on me. Good luck.” and continued to walk up the street, and ducked in to the bookshop I was going to. He continued to yell at me. The last thing I heard him call out to me was the C bomb…it rang out in my ears.
I felt pretty crap. He was so agro and aggressive. He was right I could get out money and probably not even notice that I’d given him some. This experience was such a contrast to the one I’d just had with the lady in the laneway. She was very appreciative and not demanding and not wanting to impose on anyone.
Homeless people are people. Just as some people are nice and others not so…
Could you blame this man’s agro? He’d probably been asking for money all day (or months for that matter) and had the same answer from anyone. He would of been frustrated watching people say they have no money then go and buy food or go into nice book shops like I did. People saying they have no money, but wearing nice clothes and holding nice bags.
A man walked into my office last week. Dirty, smelly and looking sad. He asked if someone could help him find somewhere to stay.
I made a phone call to our main office to see if I could find someone who was available to chat with this man.
(Why didn’t I help him? To be honest I didn’t really know where to start, and I knew that someone else at Urban Seed would know what to do. As my main task is education about homelessness to school kids, I don’t know much about on the ground work).
It was going to be awhile till someone could chat to him. He started to cry and said, that “no one wants to help you when you’re homeless. Look at me, I’m dirty. I can’t even get clean clothes. I’ve tried to kill myself…” he said, showing me his wrist. He continued, “I’ve been in hospital and they don’t wont to help me, they just kick you out. No one will help me.”
I’m not sure I dealt with this man the best I could. I was a bit taken a back. It was confronting and I felt helpless. I also felt a little unsure of the situation, as it was just me and him alone in my office.
I asked if he knew where Credo was? If he went over there someone would be able to help him, and he could get some food. He said he couldn’t walk and could hardly breathe. I asked if he wanted to sit down on our couches and have a rest and he said “no, no I can’t. I can’t breathe.”
I made another call back to our main office to see if someone could come over and chat with him. He was clearly distressed and not able to go over there. Stu – one of our residents, would be over soon.
I told him, “Someone will be here soon, with some food and they will be able to help you.”
He continued to get worked up and say no one wanted to help. “I’ve been sleeping in a stair well and in a building site. Look me!…” Eventually he said “I’m going for a walk I’ll come back.” And then he just disappeared out into the cold wet Melbourne spring day.
He left as I was meeting some students who wanted to interview me about the work Urban Seed does. A few mins later Stu showed up, with some food ready to help. But the man was gone. Stu left the food. And we agreed I’d call Stu if he came back.
Half way through the interview I was doing with the students we saw him walk past. I ran out to see if I could get him to stop, but by the time I got to the door he was half way up the street and holing a 4 pack of Jack Daniels and coke. Could you blame him? It was raining. He was covered in mud. He was in pain. Distressed, upset and just wanted someone to help him. Jack seemed to be the only one willing to.
At this point I’d written off ever seeing him again. And was wondering if I and what I could have done to help.
Half an hour later he appeared. I promptly gave him the food – spaghetti carbonara. And took him to our couches and said “you have a rest here, and I’ll call Stu to come and have a chat with you.”
He ate a few mouthfuls of the spaghetti carbonara. And then said he can’t eat, “I can’t breathe properly. I’ve been coughing up blood. I’ve got lung cancer. Do you think I’ve got lung cancer?” He then asked if I could turn the lights out so he could sleep, and then asked me to wake him at 3pm. So I left him in the dark, and went back to work.
Stu showed up. He chatted with the man, made some calls, and generally made the guy feel at ease. I was impressed by his ability to chat with this man face to face and treat him just like a friend.
Stu was unable to find him anywhere to stay that night. He found one place but the man was not willing to stay there. He said it was full of drug users it made him feel unsafe. It’s saying something when a man appears in your office in tears wanting help for somewhere to stay the night, but then turns down the only place available. The rain and building site were a safer bedroom for him than the so called refuge.
I went home that night (it was cold and wet) to my home, to my bed, TV, couch and nice things. And I was thinking of this man and where he would go and what he would do. The last thing he said to me was, “you are lucky you have a home. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
Just last week I bought one of my friends a pack of cigarettes and my other friend a can of coke.
Both these friends are addicts. And both these friends are homeless.
Should I have done this? Was there a better a way to spend my money on my friends?
Sure neither cigarettes or coke are good for you. Maybe the coke is the lesser of these 2 evils, but the amount of coke my friend consumes means it’s probably just as bad as the cigarettes my other friends smokes.
Maybe I should have bought my friends something useful and beneficial?
But that assumes I KNOW what they want or need. What I may see as useful may be particularly un-useful to them.
I once walked past a man begging outside a fast food joint. Another man went into the restaurant and come out with a burger and handed it to the ‘beggar’. The ‘beggar’ muttered under his breathe ‘that’s the 10th burger I’ve received today, I don’t need a burger I need money for a room to stay.’ To me this powerfully illustrates how we can’t assume what another person needs or wants until we have looked at life from their perspective.
If look at my own spending habits, I’m not sure I always buy things for myself that are useful or beneficial. I do it anyway because I WANT to and for that moment it makes me happy. Sure maybe I have the right to because it’s MY money and sure maybe the things I buy wont kill me…but is there really a big difference? Are our motives are the same…?
You see I bought these ‘drug’s’ of choice for my friends because I wanted to a do a nice thing for them; without judging what they want or deem as useful or beneficial – gift if you like.
Maybe that wasn’t a smart or wise thing to do from my perspective. But when I took the time to look at things from their perspective it seemed like the right thing to do.
Recently my friend and I were sitting having a coffee on Swanston street when a guy wandered up to us and asked us if we could spare any coins. He explained that he was homeless, sleeping in a nearby alley and needing money for food and accommodation. He looked the part too: the epitome of the homeless stereotype. An older guy with a Gandalf beard and ragged, dirty clothes.
We offered to buy the guy a meal and he accepted. My mate and I wandered across the street with him to a 24-hour diner style restaurant and we all got a drink and him a meal. We sat and chatted while he ate and he was a pretty friendly guy. He explained that he had been homeless for about 20 years, spending most of that time in Melbourne. We asked if he had heard of our organisation (Credo Café was only a few hundred metres away from where we sat) but he said he wasn’t familiar with it. This shocked me. Firstly because of the long duration of his homelessness but also the proximity of his sleeping spot to our main office and café.
It really hit home for me that the roughly 100k homeless people in Australia is no small number.
As he finished his meal we said goodnight and off we all went, him to his business and us to ours. As we walked down towards Flinders Street my friend and I chatted about the conversation we’d just had. I couldn’t believe he’d never heard of Urban Seed but my friend commented, “I just wanted to know about his ring.”
“His ring?” I responded, confused. “Yeah he was wearing a wedding ring. He’s been homeless for 20 years and is clearly alone now, so what happened to the girl?”
One hundred thousand homeless around the country and each one has a story but I’ve only had the privilege to hear a few.
Yesterday I bought some pizza slices on my way home from work. I had 3, for $5. Just enough to fill the hole before I get home. As I was just about to attack slice 3, a beggar came up to me in the street, and asked for money. I awkwardly hid my body language of a person about to take a bite of dinner, and smoothly transitioned it into an offer, of my last piece of pizza. Immediately the small silver stubbled man spoke from under his cap that he needed money for a place to stay tonight. Not pizza. Now I didn’t want to give money today. My daily account was a bit short, with only $20 left. Payday was 2 days away. I said no. He replied in disgust “I don’t know how you people can sleep at night… you can give money. you know you can. But you won’t. You just don’t give a shit”. I held back the temptation to inform the man i worked for an org that supported homeless people and instead awkwardly removed my self from the conversation, and continued home munching my pizza. it had gotten cold.