4AM. I am up so might as well problem solve about the rough sleepers of Sydney. The internet, as well as my numerous queries to locals, has helped me gather some data. I try to refrain from prematurely shaping a conclusion. I feel like with more info the truth, the WHY, will shine through. Besides being dam curious, the WHY is important to me because it will inform the WHAT-TO-DO about it.
4:30AM. I get the idea and it grows. I know what I want to do. But, I am scared. I have accessed the research of mental health professionals and agencies, I have queried locals. Now I want to query the homeless themselves….
We have all experienced walking by someone sitting in squalor on the street. You don't know what to do. To ignore them is to dehumanize them. To look at them makes you feel like you are treating them like a spectacle. You have heard that giving them a handout reinforces their begging, or is just used for drugs. You have also heard that most are mentally ill so feel it smart to avoid them and not risk placing yourself in jeopardy. You walk by feeling helpless, sad, unsure what you can do. You get over it by the time you reach the next block. To walk by 5 homeless on 5 blocks does not allow recovery time from the bad feeling as you pass by. It is also a striking contrast when the surroundings seem so cared for and beautiful. Can you imagine finding homeless people on Main Street in Disney? The contrast would deliver an especially impactful experience, wouldn't it?
The commercial locale that we have selected to stay in Sydney is along the main drag of George Street and is a hotbed for rough sleepers. The foot traffic is high and there is probably plenty of opportunity for local businesses to toss aging stock their way. The homeless also hang out 2 streets parallel to George in either direction as well as the Domain, Hyde Park, King's Cross and Woolloomooloo. They seem to stay out of the touristy Rocks and Darling Harbor areas. There must be some sort of a territorial understanding in place between the city and those who live on its streets.
I have watched these people daily since our arrival. I have noticed their crates, their stashes, their black feet and nails. I know their cardboard signs with the 1 sentence blurb trying to set the hook for mercy and have pondered their stories. Some have a regular corner and some move around. Some are clearly on drugs and some have a more elusive back-story. One shakes a bunch and his sign explains he was born with epilepsy. One corner has a man and woman that seem to alternate on it- the kids think it's a possible husband and wife team. The man holds a sign "house burned I have nothing." One Aboriginal woman makes her plea then follows it up with a warning, "do not judge. " She makes traditional dot paintings as she sits at the curb with her back inches from the street. A couple of guys have druggy eyes and sit on crates out of the business district almost down into China town. One guy with dreds walks around a lot and doesn't have any sign or appeal for help. I think he is just camping out on the street probably eating out of the trash. There is another guy just like that that has a blue sleeping bag. Once in the early morning hours I saw the guy with the blue bag gazing at a blind man walking down the street. As the blind man neared him swinging his cane back and forth it became clear to the blue bag guy and me (from well across the street) that he was on a trajectory for his cane to get snagged on some sidewalk debris. The blue bag guy without a word cleared the path for the unknowing blind guy. Nobody saw him do this but me, the blind guy passed unaware that he was the recipient of this act of kindness. The blue bag guy was in his own little world 2 feet above street level. I thought about how different life must be from that height. What a symbolic, physical representation about what life must feel like.
Let me be clear, I am no Mother Theresa. I don't know why the homelessness here has such an impact on me. Maybe the numbers are big enough where it is tough to ignore. Maybe I am feeling a bit homeless myself these days. Maybe there are other issues and connections pulling on my heart strings- probably so. No matter what the pull, the thought cycles about WHY it is so prevalent keep reoccurring as well as the pressing question WHAT can I do? I've done a bit of makeshift researching and developed some ideas about the WHY.
Here are some quotes from interviews shared in an evidence-based research paper about homelessness and a possible link to de-institutionalizing the mentally ill.
"All the mentally ill are not homeless. The majority live and function in the community with family and other supports. Those that become homeless are usually poor and without family support. I am yet to discover a wealthy person with family support who has a severe mental illness homeless on the streets."
(a housing sector leader)
"It is not de-institutionalism (of the mentally ill) per se that's to blame; rather the under-investment in community and home based mental health services. It can be challenging for people with severe and persistent mental health issues who need permanent housing linked to ongoing health and wellbeing support services, to access the right type and intensity of support needed for successful tenancy."
(a colleague at a local Sydney homeless agency)
"De-institutionalism is a good thing and with the improvements to meds, would have happened anyway. It is the continued under-investment in and poor conditions of access to community mental health services and the lack of follow-up care that leads to people ending up on the streets where their problems only get worse…Mental health care in this state is a shambles."
(a nurse from an agency that provides support to people with mental illness in the local area)
I know this is anything but scientific process, but here are some quotes from locals I queried to uncover their attitudes towards the homeless and ideas on its prevalence.
My query- the city is so beautiful and friendly, do you have any idea why there are so many homeless here?
"I noticed that too. They don't have the same kinds of programs here that you or I are used to in our countries."
Follow up-Do you know anything about the rough sleeper outside the store on the Jacob Store corner?
"Oh, the one with the family member that has medical problems? I don't know but he does have a few friends. I have worked here 4 years and he has been there the whole time."
(an Irish female clerk at the Aryveda salon in the Jacobs Department store)
"The city needs to clean them up. It is an embarrassment to the city."
(a male Chinese taxi driver who after 23 years here loves the casual no-need-for-status feeling of Sydney versus his native high-pressure status-laden Beijing)
"They are lazy and it's easier for them to sit on the street and beg instead of work. They make a lot of money by doing what they do. I wish the city would clean them up."
Follow up- Are there readily accessible social programs for them?
"Yes there are programs. They don't want them. The homeless work George Street because its easy money for them and they rake in a lot. You know you can't come to a city for just 2 weeks and really know what goes on."
(a male Doctor of Dermatology)
(Sour taste face). "Are there? Yes, I guess there are. I am actually a New Zealander and I did notice that too when I arrived. I don't know why because this is a welfare state and they should be able to get what they need. Ew. It really doesn't reflect well on the city."
(a gay male worker at the Opera House giving us a tour)
"Ay, I noticed that too when I came. They are really backwards here about some things you wouldn't think. I think there are like no mental health programs in this country. It's a shame, it really is." The clothes and TV are backwards too."
(a Scottish female hairdresser)
6:30 AM I think it's an ok time. I'm nervy but exhilarated that I finally have an action to take that feels like a way forward with this conundrum. It is Sunday morning and the city is quiet so I can make contact with little traffic noise. I have my target- the Jacob's man. He piques my curiosity and seems the least mentally unstable. Plus, he is consistently on the same well-travelled corner so I can find him easily and feel no danger. I leave the house and after 2 blocks begin to sweat profusely. I am afraid. What will be my opening line? Every string of words I come up with seems so rude. By block 3 I check in with myself and realize there is 50-50 chance that I will need to just walk by without actually executing on this. I notice around block 4 that the streets are filthy and the city workers are out spraying the sidewalks on foot followed by zamboni. They are pretty thoughtful about not wetting down the rough sleepers but come within inches.
There is just 1 block to go and my stomach a knot. I think I've lost a pint of water from my pits. I round the Jacob's corner and the first thing that catches my eye is his black feet revealing I will find the rest of him in a supine position. It is an affront to the eyes to see a large man lying on the sidewalk as if he is a cadaver. He is laying down with a tattered blanket over him. He looks so big and threatening. Maybe my vetting-by-vibe was off and he is more mentally ill than I sensed and my approach will agitate him in some way. I stand by him for a second then walk on. I am aware there are others observing my odd behavior. A homeless guy catty corner takes note of me. A few taxis are lined up by Jacob's with the cabbies behind the wheel ready for action. I turn around and walk by again. Wanting to be productive in some way, I stupidly turn on the video of my phone and act incognito as I take a quick flyby video. I feel deranged. How selfish of me to think about the best time and best acoustics for me. This guy is asleep and from everything I read he needs to sleep now because his nights are fraught with danger. I walk off. He stirs a bit. I detest a mission failed and fear I will not be able to gather this courage, or madness, again. I decide to go get an Egg McMuffin, some juice and coffee for him thinking perhaps he will be awake by the time I am back. I procure the goods and make my way back. I slowly round the corner and again, the feet are straight revealing he is supine. The homeless guy on the opposite corner is now seriously noticing me and my strange behavior and interest in Mr. Jacob. I also feel the eyes of the cabbies. I fold under the weight of observation. It isn't lost on me that if our social statuses were reversed that I am nearing cause for apprehension for stalking this sleeping giant. He stirs and nods but does not wake as I flee. 3 blocks later I pass the blue sleeping bag guy and leave the McDonalds food next to him as he sleeps. I hope it will still be hot when he wakes. A block later I see the street cleaner headed his way and fear for his breakfast.
I debrief with myself. So that was a first attempt. Seemed like a good idea in the incubation stage…execution is proving harder than I imagined. 7:20AM.
Awkward video can be seen in the video section of this blog