When we create a narrative that states that only bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people, we feel that we can exercise a modicum of control over our lives... we can justify our own happy endings by defining ourselves as good - and excuse the circumstances of others less fortunate by laying the blame at their feet. This story-line exists even in seemingly benign spiritual beliefs like karma, but it doesn't serve the truth, and neither is it fair.
Where does this belief system lead us when addressing poverty and homelessness?
There is, without doubt, an underlying bias in Australia that feeds a skewed view on that great Australian colloquialism - 'fair go'. Once upon a time Australia considered itself a truly egalitarian nation - everyone had the opportunity to be as successful as anyone else, I am not sure how many of us believe that now, but the residue is that sticky idea of culpability...'if you're poor or homeless it is probably because you're lazy, stupid, or both'.
This denies the reality of low incomes vs high, un-affordable rent, along with the multitude of actual causes of homelessness.
Us and Them
If we believe that people who are experiencing homelessness are 'bad' or at least made some bad choices, and therefore are responsible for their circumstances then we can keep safe in the knowledge that it will never happen to us, because we are 'good' or at least we make good choices. The idea that homelessness is something that can, and does, happen to anyone is terrifying... so much so that we rationalise and blame.
If we believe that people who are experiencing homelessness are 'bad' or at least made some bad choices, and therefore are responsible for their circumstances then we can feel okay about walking past and ignoring them. We can feel vindicated in our lack of caring and lack of responsibility toward them.
If we believe that people who are experiencing homelessness are 'bad' or at least made some bad choices, and therefore are responsible for their circumstances then we can make social, political and financial choices that benefit us, but not others.
BUT if we acknowledge that homelessness can, and does, happen to anyone irrespective of our subjective views on good and bad, we can see the people before us for who they really are, engage with them in empathy and respect and change, even just for a moment, the narrative.
It is time to question our preconceived ideas on poverty and homelessness - right now in Australia the fastest growing demographic of people experiencing homelessness is women over 55.
Everyone who is experiencing, or has experienced, homelessness has endured a unique journey to that point in their lives - there are commonalities and themes.... but the way they are treated when at that crisis point is remarkably similar. Feelings of shame, a loss of dignity and a sense of separateness are almost universally reported by rough sleepers, regardless if they fit stereotypes or not.
It's not prudent to talk to all strangers...but don't let that be your excuse
As an introvert I am more than happy to go about my daily doings without talking to a single person, as a polite person I will speak when spoken to however. BUT I make an exception for any person I think needs 'extra' - even if that extra is just a smile and a nod; a positive acknowledgement of their existence. 'Extra' sometimes means stopping for a chat and some of my most favourite conversations have come about when I stopped to chat with a person sleeping rough- in fact the only person to ever ask me to be their Valentine on St Valentine's Day was a man sleeping behind the library !
In no way am I suggesting that everyone should talk to EVERYONE, sometimes it is not safe, but use your judgement; do you believe it is not safe because the person in front of you is homeless and you have been conditioned to believe that they are bad / dangerous / mad or is there a genuine reason to manage your safety? Then.... if you choose to engage do it with goodwill, compassion, an open-mind and sincerity ... you could change someone's day, you might change their life xx