While it’s been heartening to hear some politicians raising awareness about the day-to-day challenges facing their constituents – describing how people are living in tents, couch surfing or forgoing medications due to costs – the sad reality is that there is no quick fix and as they will never be vote-winners, there is no pressure to implement change.
Regardless of the public discourse going on about these social issues, for those who are working at the coalface with the most vulnerable in our community it remains a case of continuing to provide assistance wherever and whenever possible, with whatever resources are available.
Recent figures released by
Hutt St Centre show there has been record demand for their services already this year and we haven’t even started to experience the cold, winter months (see story page 3). The demographic of those needing support is also changing – increasingly, people who have had jobs and fallen on hard times, or those who are still holding down a job but can’t manage, and a growing number of older women who find themselves homeless due to marriage breakdowns and the rental crisis are seeking help from the Centre.
As Sister Debra McCarthy from the Daughters of Charity put it so succinctly to me, society can no longer refer to ‘those people’, as we are all only ‘three unfortunate events’ away from being in the same situation. If you are suddenly retrenched, perhaps have an addiction disorder, mental health problems, a marriage breakdown – they can all be contributing factors to your life unravelling and needing the support of an agency such as Hutt St Centre.
Statistics like those from Hutt St Centre are sobering, but as I asked Sr Debra, what can people like you and me do to help?
There are the obvious things like giving to fundraisers that support the agencies, volunteering your time if that is an option or donating good quality clothing and blankets, but as Sr Debra explained it is some of the simplest things that can make a difference to the person, who is not just a statistic.
She spoke of living in Melbourne during COVID lockdowns when she would often walk around the local streets of Fitzroy, seeing people who were sleeping rough. In order to reduce the spread of the virus we became a cashless society so there was no money in her pockets to hand over to them so they could buy some food or a cup of coffee.
However, as others would pass by, Sr Debra would stop and strike up a conversation. She would ask how they were, talk about the weather (which in Melbourne can be a whole conversation in itself) and simply engage as one human with another. Such a simple gesture but the feedback was humbling and overwhelming. She said those she chatted with were so grateful that someone had taken the time to make eye contact and acknowledge their humanity.
Her recollection made me think of all the times I have left the comfort of the office at lunchtime, already with a full stomach, and walked around the CBD streets soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the beautiful day. For several months I often went past a handful of people who were sleeping rough and had set up an almost permanent shelter underneath the verandah of a large building.
In recent times they have moved on – or been moved on – and the area has been cleaned. For a period there was temporary fencing erected and while I’m not sure why, I could hazard a guess.
I am ashamed to say that in the many times I walked past not once did I stop to say hello to the men as they sat on their sleeping bags. Like everyone around me, I kept on walking, gazing straight ahead and treated them as if they were invisible.
Chatting with Sr Debra got me thinking about the importance of faith and how faith in action doesn’t need to be an extravagant display of money. Sometimes it can be as simple as saying hello.