What do you do when you see a homeless person?

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.  

Roman Krznaric challenges us in our response to the homeless people we see:

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. 

 

It’s hot!

It’s been a hot summer with more to come.  And although the heat is pretty tough on all of us, it is probably toughest of all for people whose home is the baked pavements of the Melbourne CBD. As the temperature nudged the mid-40s the other week, an Urban Seed staff member ran into a friend who was camping out. This was a beautiful, generous woman, who always struck up a conversation whenever the staff member went by. Today the friend looked pretty worn down, and as they talked, made the comment that having a big bag of ice would make her life a lot easier. The suggestion sparked an idea, and the next day a few Urban Seeders got out the trolley that was normally reserved for blankets and coffee, and filled it instead with water and ice. They pushed the trolley around the usual ‘blanket run’ route,striking up conversations with familiar and unfamiliar faces alike, and offering cool relief.

Read more about Urban Seed’s Ice Run here.

Did you know?

Heatwaves cause more deaths in Australia each year than any other natural disaster.  

VCOSS has undertaken some research into the issues and way vulnerable or at risk Australian’s have to face the heat here are some of there findings:

  • Vulnerable people living in public housing properties, rooming houses and caravans that were described by staff as ‘hot boxes’ and who had no access to cooling or cool areas.
  • Lifts out of action in high rise accommodation because of heat-related power shortages.
  • Vulnerable people having to walk in extreme heat due to inadequate public transport and risking fines because they could not afford transport costs to medical or other appointments.
  • Landlords who did not allow air-conditioning or fans because of operating costs.
  • Lack of monitoring for vulnerable people, such as those with mental health or alcohol and drug issues who risk heat stress or sunburn and sunstroke by wearing inappropriate clothes or being out in the sun.
  • Lack of access to drinking water, particularly for people who are homeless and sleeping rough, as well as those living in accommodation that restricts access to kitchens and bathrooms.

Given all this, it was sad to see that Melbourne’s homeless were being moved on.  But it is heartening to see that Melbourne’s Lord Mayor is wanting introduce an extreme weather policy for the vulnerable.

The agro beggar who called me a c bomb…

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.

 

No one will help me.

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.”

I just walked past a homeless man

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=RnmNZaW8oVQ
I just walked past a homeless man.
(I am assuming he was homeless as he had no shoes on, dirty clothes, mated hair and was looking through a bin. )

As I past him I tried to not look at him, I didn’t want to gain eye contact.

Why?

Honestly, I didn’t want to give him any money. I didn’t want to help him. And I knew that by looking at him, and getting eye contact with him I would feel terribly guilty about not helping him. I don’t want to feel bad. So the best tactic was (is) to pretend I didn’t see him and just keep walking. Just act as if he didn’t exist.

The problem is this didn’t/doesn’t really work. I still feel terrible. This man does exist and is probably still wondering the streets looking in bins, without and shoes.

Homeless Veteran Timelapse Transformation

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=6a6VVncgHcY
Although this video is highlighting the transformation of a homeless man from an on the  surface to a deeper level. To me this video is about stereotypes.  About how we judge and treat someone based on what they look like.  As shallow as this sounds, if we take a look into our own lives we wont have to look hard to find examples.

We tell a story at Urban  Seed, and although it is an old one, and has almost entered the realm of myth.  It holds a profound truth about stereotypes. It goes something like this:

—-

There was once a man who worked on the top of end of Collins St in Melbourne.  He was a successful business man, looked the part and fit in very well in the city.

He was invited to a fancy dress party at the Old Melbourne Goal.  Not wanting to dress the same as everyone else he decided he would go as a homeless man.  He thought he was being rather clever, given that the Old Melbourne Gaol was known for the likes of Ned Kelly and prisoners. He thought a homeless man was a good modern twist of the outsider in society.

Wanting to look the part and have the best costume he deiced to grow his beard out.  He went to the op shop and found dirty hole-ly trousers. A slipper and an un-matching shoe to go with.  About 3 overcoats.  And he stuffed plastic bags full of rags.  We wore fingerless gloves and a beanie.  And even made a cardboard sign asking for money and put a bottle in a brown paper bag.

This fancy dress party happened to be after work.  So the man decided to get changed at walk and then walk to the party.  So he took off his nice suit and put on his ‘hobo’ costume.  Then hit the streets of Melbourne at peak hour on his way to the party.

As he walked up the busy streets to the party something strange happened.  He had this  feeling that everyone was looking at him, but no one was looking him.  Instead of having to push his way through the crowds like he normally would after work, he had all this space around him.  And one person even crossed the street as he got close.  This started to disturb him.  Did people think he was homeless?

His suspicions were confirmed when he went to get some cigarettes to complete his outfit.      As he went to go in the 7-11, the man serving from behind the counter came out and stood in the doorway stopping him from entering, and said, “you can’t come in here!”

The man was taken a back.  He just wanted to get some smokes.  He’d never been knocked back from a shop before.  Thinking on his feet, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, and said “what makes you think I can’t pay?”

Immediately the shop keeper, stepped aside and let him in.

—–

This story makes us question whether we really know who someone is.  I think we all would have assumed this man was homeless had we seen him that day walking the streets.

It also highlights how we include or exclude people based on they way they look.  As I feel this video is highlighting.

And finally it makes a sad point about money, and how it talks and changes everything.

I bought smokes and coke for my homeless friends…

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.

The race that stops the nations or spends the nation?

Spend, spend spend…
photo

Is the Melbourne Cup and Spring Carnival just an excuse for us to spend up big….?

It is estimated that we will spend $53 millions this year on fashion alone.

$140 million on food and drink.

$806 million on betting through the spring carnival. The average bet being $8.50.  And it’s reported that during peak times a bet will be placed every 2 seconds.

It estimated that the average race goer will spend $1,200.

Overall $455 million will be spent.

This year the crowd at the Melbourne cup – was 104,000.  This is approximately the same number of homeless people in Australia.

Just think what else could be done with that $455 million to improve the life of this experiencing homeless and disadvantage in Australia.

I taught a homeless man to code…

I taught a homeless man to code
My preconceptions about homelessness have been shattered. I always thought homeless people were isolated, but Leo is part of a very supportive community. He says the hardest thing is not the practical challenges but society’s view of him. There is an assumption that homeless people are addicted to something or mentally ill, but Leo doesn’t drink or smoke; he became homeless after he lost his job and then his accommodation in 2011.

At the start of this project, I wrote a blog about it and was inundated with responses. Some were moved and inspired; others were more negative, suggesting I should focus on buying Leo food or finding him somewhere to live instead. This idea is a tricky one. I consider Leo a friend. If he said he needed anything, I’d jump through hoops for him, but I don’t ever want him to think we are anything but equals.

One Sleep from the Street.

One sleep from the street: homelessness in our community

Join us for a discussion about the issue of homelessness in the City of Yarra.

Guest speakers from specialist organisations will give a picture of homelessness today. Come along to find out what role you might play and how you can help anyone you know who is homeless.

Featuring representatives from St Mark’s Community Centre, HomeGround Services and the Council to Homeless Person’s Peer Education and Support Program. Hosted by writer and broadcaster Tony Wilson.

This free event is sponsored by the Thomas, Samuel & George Ewing Trust. Bookings are essential. Click here to book online.

Time: 7pm to 8pm
Date: Tuesday 22 October
Venue: Fitzroy Town Hall Reading Room (201 Napier St, Fitzroy)