It’s easy to forget how privileged our lives really are. I went to Adelaide yesterday to see a friend who had been taken to hospital to have his appendix out.
I jumped on the internet, found a flight and flew over as quickly as I could. When I arrived at the emergency ward, he’d been patiently waiting for ten hours, still in need of a bed in a ward and still waiting to find out when he’d be operated on. The nurse said he might have to wait another two days.
It seemed so unfair and ridiculous. Two days? For emergency surgery? What kind of hideous world are we living in? I left him late that night, neither of us knowing how much longer he’d have to wait.
Fiddling around on Twitter back in my hotel room, I found a tweet from the food blogger, Sophie McComas. Her flatmate, James, had given a cup of tea to a homeless woman he’d found asleep on their doorstep.
A few days later, Sophie and James found a Christmas card in their mailbox saying, “Thank you for treating me like a normal person. I’m very grateful for your kindness and a sweet cup of tea. Merry Christmas and an exciting New Year.”
It made me pull my head in. Here I was, able to fly at a moment’s notice without any thought. My friend, although waiting, was safely asleep in a hospital bed with a team of people looking after him. I was getting uppity because things weren’t happening fast enough for my liking. The woman James had found had absolutely nothing and was sleeping in a doorway. A cup of tea had meant the world to her.
It’s so easy to not only take our own comfort for granted, but to forget that we’re all in the same boat. The only difference between us who have everything (and we do have everything) and those on the street is, in many cases, sheer dumb luck.
People don’t wind up homeless on purpose or because they deserve it.
Any one of us could find ourselves in a difficult situation—a catastrophic illness that bankrupts you, a bad marriage break up that leaves you without a cent to your name, an undiagnosed mental illness rendering you incapable of making the sorts of decisions necessary to fend for yourself effectively. Becoming homeless is, frighteningly, far easier than many of us think.
Worryingly, the number of homeless women over 55 is growing. These are women who were married young and have either never worked, or worked so little that they have no superannuation or money of their own. When their marriages end, these women find themselves not only completely socially isolated and broke, but without any of the skills many of us take for granted.
Finding a job or a flat for the very first time when you’re 60 years old, have no fixed address and no idea how to put together a resume nor find references is no easy feat. Add a violent partner and a lack of education to the mix and the uphill battle becomes almost vertical.
Imagine how humiliating and frightening it would be to find yourself in that situation. Imagine not knowing where to go for help, or even that help existed.
Imagine having no family to help you out, no friends, no-one to call on or give you comfort. Imagine sleeping on the street or in a park for the first time. Then imagine the looks you would get from people as they go to work each day—or even worse, the looks you don’t get. Imagine becoming completely invisible.
This time of year is miserable for the homeless. Many of the services they rely on close for Christmas or run on limited staff. Not only that, but everywhere they look are the cheery, tinselly reminders of a happy world full of food, family and love that is out of their reach. It must be crushing.
Next time someone asks you for change, look them in the eye. Give them money if you like but if not, smile at them and say, “Sorry, I can’t today,”.
I know all the reasons for not giving money to beggars: they’ll only spend it on drugs, they’ll drink it, they’ve probably turned begging into a career. Whatever. Sometimes that’s the case, sometimes it’s not and you can’t tell just by looking at a person what their circumstances are.
And no matter what their situation, they still deserve the simple dignity of knowing that they exist. Acknowledge them. That’s all you have to do.
I know a lot of people are frightened by people who ask for money. Perhaps because I live in an area where I come across it countless times a day, I don’t find it fearful. The people I’ve stopped and chatted to have always left me feeling very humble: mostly because they make do with so little and still manage to smile or tell a joke. I’m not sure I’d be capable of the same if I was in their situation. I’d probably be holed up in a corner somewhere bawling my eyes out.
This time of year is frightening for the homeless. Acknowledge them. That’s all you have to do. Image via Lindrake on Flickr.
There’s never enough money for the homeless. Never enough emergency accommodation, never enough drug and alcohol counselling, never enough legal aid, never enough empathy. It’s an enormous problem and those that work in the sector are run ragged. Smile at the person you see on the street. Say g’day as you pass them. Stop and chat for five minutes if you like. Make them feel—like the woman that James Crawley gave a cup of tea to—that they still have a place in the world.
If you’ve got a few spare dollars this Christmas, please donate to a charity that helps the homeless.
My favourite is Victorian based The Brotherhood of St Laurence who run, among other things, a specialty program designed to help and mentor women on low incomes. You can also give at charities like Mission Australia and St Vincent de Paul.
MORE STORIES BY CORINNE GRANT
*Corinne Grant is a stand-up comedian, MC, presenter, writer and broadcaster and has performed both nationally and internationally. In addition to her years on Rove Live and The Glasshouse, she has appeared on everything from Spicks and Specks to Dancing With The Stars to Good News Week. She has co-hosted successful national radio shows, performed countless solo live shows and appeared everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to the Kalgoorlie Arts Centre. Corinne’s first book, Lessons In Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder (Allen and Unwin) was released in September 2010 and went into reprint just months after its release.