Just before Christmas, I met a young man named Mitch. He was living on the streets of Sydney. My girlfriend and I almost walked by him as many people do. Choosing not to see someone because it’s somehow uncomfortable. Acknowledging the homeless also acknowledges that you are doing nothing to help them. The city was filled with Christmas shoppers and the homeless are an unwanted obstacle in the path of those fulfilling their consumer missions. Ironic, people so obsessed with securing gifts for others because society says this is the time to give, yet ignoring those in obvious need right before them.
Something about Mitch made my girlfriend stop. Perhaps it was how young he looked. I was making pace for the station, ready for the trip home when I noticed she was no longer walking next to me. I took a few steps back to join them. We introduced ourselves and my girlfriend asked Mitch if he would mind sharing why he was living on the street. At 21, Mitch is frank and clear-eyed, drug-free apart from a smoking habit. I don’t think it’s fair to share the details of his life without his permission, suffice it to say his story was one of misfortune, abandonment and ill-treatment. He expressed a great desire not to be living on the street. He shared his plans to get an apartment of his own. He freely admitted life had put him in situations that had led to bad choices, choices that made it more difficult now to find work and housing. Waiting for social housing was likely to be long and fruitless, other services only solve immediate problems, like a charity food voucher for $15 that might get him a meal once a month.
As we spoke, standing to one side of a busy Martin Place, a woman walked right between us, completely disregarding our conversation and Mitch’s presence, her shopping bags nearly knocking us over. We all had to take a step back and collectively laughed in disbelief. But part of me wondered if I was any better than the bustling intruder. I’ve occasionally bought meals for people living in the streets, or given money, but like many of us, I’ve also found it easier sometimes to walk by. I like to think I’m a little better as a human being because I see these people, even if I feel powerless to help.
Mitch said he didn’t want to say, ‘See you next time’, because next time we come to Martin Place he didn’t want to be living there. He wanted to take his social security and start paying rent. From there he hoped he could get work. We asked if there was anything we could do now to help him. He simply said a hot meal would be nice.
Mitch could have turned his life into a sob-story. For various reasons, he’d been rejected by his family and society, but he expressed a determination to make something of his life. He possessed a strong sense of self-determination. He took responsibility for the poor choices he’d made, despite many of them being made as a result of even poorer situations outside of his control.
We gave Mitch some money to get some food and he thanked us for taking the time to stop and have a conversation. He thanked us for listening and for seeing him. We all agreed we didn’t want to see him next time we might pass through Martin Place. Hopefully, because he will have his own place and maybe even a job. I’d hate for him to become a long-term member of the invisible homeless, ignored by thousands every day, too busy with our own lives to stop and help. But Mitch not being on the street doesn’t change the fact that others will be and as long as there are people on the street can we honestly say we live in a fair and compassionate society? More likely we are living in an age of misaligned priorities. We look beyond the obvious, we relegate problems like homelessness to our peripheral vision, choosing not to see because it has become an issue that is hard to change. The reality is though that change is just as much an act of will as keeping things the same.
Author – Road To Nowhere