No doubt we've all been appalled by recent CCTV footage of people walking past a homeless man as he died of stab wounds on a New York pavement. Hugo Tale-Yax had attempted to intervene in a violent altercation between a man and a woman and was stabbed and left to die as a result. What is worse, security footage shows that over the four hours he lay there, many people walked past his dead or dying body.
People walking past a dead or dying homeless man is a tragedy, by which we are right to be appalled. But what compounds this tragedy is the frequency with which we all continue to walk past living homeless people, often with little or no more regard than was shown Hugo Tale-Yax.
While Australians wring our hands at a story like Tale-Yax's and click our tongues disapprovingly at those who walked past him, 105,000 people still go homeless every night in our country. Only a small percentage of these are living on the streets, with most couch-surfing with friends or relatives, or living in unsafe, insecure or temporary accommodation. Yet housing occupancy in Australia stands at an average of 1.2 people per house. That means the vast majority of homes are single occupancy, if not entirely empty.
Of course, reducing the incidence of homelessness is far more complex than merely providing people with a roof over their heads. But relying solely on government to do all the work is irresponsible and hypocritical. No doubt the Rudd government has to do more if it is serious about its target of halving homelessness by 2020, but when we live in the eighth most wealthy country in the world it is something for which we can all take responsibility.
Making poverty history often means making poverty personal, with all the cost and inconvenience that comes along with it. Only then do we begin to learn the complexities of people's lives and the social dynamics which reinforce and entrench disadvantage, from addiction and mental illness to social apathy and ingrained affluence.
My community has been offering a free lunch in the heart of Melbourne's CBD for about 15 years. We've sought to 'make poverty personal' by offering hospitality in the form of a free lunch, often sharing it with some of the city's most marginalised people. This simple act of sharing a meal begins to break down the barriers between people, allowing conversations to happen and personal connections to develop.
Homelessness in Australia is a complex problem, but if there is a common factor in the stories we hear it is that of isolation and loneliness. People end up homeless when their support networks fail them or are not there to begin with. Strength to tackle these issues is built when people have the friendship and active support of other people. Building relationships is therefore a better strategy than merely giving money.
But that requires something much more of us than just flicking coins to a beggar. Perhaps instead of giving someone money for lunch, we could sit and eat lunch with them instead. Who knows where it might lead?
Tale-Yax's story is particularly instructive as it was his act of compassion in intervening in a violent situation which led to his death. People on the streets know the dynamics of violence and vulnerability much better than the rest of us. They endure not only the constant threat of violence from drunk revellers passing through the city any given night, but the cold indifference of others. This is a much more pervasive form of continued social isolation than targeted physical attack. A simple smile, acknowledgment or gesture of warmth can make the city a friendlier place for everyone.
Tale-Yax has been compared to the Good Samaritan from the biblical story. In that story, a Jewish man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road. Two religious people, a priest and a Levite, see the man but decide to walk on by. But a Samaritan, enemy of the Jewish people and considered the lowest of the low, stops and helps. The person who we least suspect is the one who assists. The one from whom we distance ourselves becomes our greatest moral instructor.
In one of his most famous speeches on this parable, Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, 'The first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?".' This is frequently our preoccupation too; if I stop to help this person I'll be late for an appointment, I might feel threatened, or this person might ask more of me than I'm prepared to give.
One could understand why Hugo Tale-Yax might have taken this attitude towards the altercation in which he intervened. But as King goes on to note, the Good Samaritan reversed the question, asking instead 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'
Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan in response to the question, 'If I am to love my neighbour as myself, who is my neighbour?' He does not give the answer though, leaving us to fill it in ourselves.
So before we direct our moral indignation at those 'priests' or 'Levites' who walked past Tale-Yax, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves which character we most identify with in the story, and then ask ourselves what it means to be 'good neighbours' to the vulnerable people we encounter.
Simon Moyle is Public Engagement Coordinator at Urban Seed.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
05 May 2010
"They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own
That want is here a stranger and that misery's unknown."
Thank you for this compassionate plea for humanity. The other element in homelessness and isolation is that so many of these lost souls suffer from mental illness and have been turfed out into the cold world created by Thatcher and Reagan (however much I would like to add Howard, it started before him).
I draw your readers' attention to an effort in the Canberra/Queanbeyan area to tackle homelessness: see http://www.homeinqueanbeyan.org/
05 May 2010
Beautifully put, Simon. We should carry this article around in our heads in the hope it will quickly find its way into our hearts. Thank you. Very much.
05 May 2010
Well said Simon.
"If I do not stop to help this man what will happen to him?"
05 May 2010
Thanks Simon for sharing this story with us. I think you are right that the common thread in homelessness is isolation and loss of social networks. The work of Urban Seed provides an important step in re-connecting people's lives and commend its efforts.
05 May 2010
Well said, do we stop to listen, to help or care for others, not just the homeless but youth in trouble, the old and lonely,the stranger or even the friend. Do we take notice of those that feel abandoned or isolated by the opinions or attitudes within society or the religions of the world. There are many ways to be homeless. Thank you Simon for bring this to mine.
05 May 2010
Anything that can break down the barriers between people that poverty puts up certainly should be fully supported although I must say I hope it doesn't become some tourist trip - particularly to B-Grade celebs - where the homeless are adopted like African babies.
13 May 2010
I cannot believe that people walked past a man who was obviously injured. Was that the case? All they needed to do was call an ambulance. A short cost of a phone call.
Something similar to this occurred to me in 2008, working an early shift, catching a 4.34am train. Two men were lying on the ground, near the bus stop, with their belongings scattered about, and there was blood on the pavement. Obviously they had been a victim of assault/robbery.
The person on the end of the 000 line was as obstructionist as possible in my view, asked the most repetitive questions, and wasted reams of time, but that's another story. Urgent attention was required and it came at least. A cold pavement is no place for anyone.