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Best of 2009: The homeless poet


Sky day, Flickr image by maureen_sillFirst published October 2009

Earlier this year an extraordinary story came out of Japan about a man who was experiencing long-term homelessness and who was regularly sending the most exquisite poems to a popular newspaper. There is nothing extraordinary about a person experiencing homelessness producing great poetry. Yet the scenario was regarded with astonishment.

In a similar vein, I recall, a couple of years ago, being interviewed on Sunrise on the issue of homelessness. There was a sense of shock about a story reported the day before, about a person experiencing homelessness who provided excellent medical assistance to someone, before disappearing as the ambos turned up.

Such surprise can only be explained by the strongly ingrained presupposition that anyone experiencing homelessness must be completely lacking in any kinds of skills; that their entire being, history and function is captured by the term 'homeless'. Quite the contrary!

According to a recent OECD report Australia has among the lowest unemployment benefits in the developed world. Macro-economist, Professor Bill Mitchell, observes that 'since the mid-1990s, the unemployed have been increasingly disadvantaged relative to average weekly earners and the aged pension recipients'.

'This has been a deliberate strategy of the successive federal governments,' he says, 'to make life increasingly harder for that group and reflects their conceptualisation of the problem as being of an individual nature rather than a systemic failure.'

Social, economic and political exclusion is a systematic action that is done to people. It is not something that people happen into by means of bad luck, bad choices or bad karma. It is manifested in individual lives as a unique intersection between personal narrative and the axes of history and structure.


The dominant discourse on the persistence of exclusion is one that fundamentally un-knows people, especially in terms of their collision with unjust structures and de-humanising histories. It is this un-knowing that leads to the much-vaunted belief that the term 'homeless' or 'unemployed' captures the entirety of a person's story and that, therefore, they are denied the multi-dimensionality that comes as a class-privilege to others in society.

Let us return to our unknown Japanese poet. His poetry is as beautiful as it is incisive in its social analysis:

'Used to living without keys,
I see through the New Year.
Of what else must I rid myself?'

In these three dense lines he provides us with a window into his exclusion, teaching us that dispossession is literally imposed on him as a material and, therefore, spiritual reality. He is aware of himself as a living ensemble of social relations in a specific historical context.

There is, of course, no solution to any social problem except one that follows from the very conditions of the problem. Approaches to social exclusion that are derived from a magisterial view of a purported moral underclass are destined to deliver the possibility of compliance but never the reality of social justice.

Such is the problem, for example, with the Federal Government's piloting of punitive measures such as suspending the welfare payments of parents whose children are not attending school. As Aboriginal education expert, Dr Chris Sarra, points out, this approach does nothing to address the problems within the school gates.

In the novel A Sun for the Dying, by Jean-Claude Izzo, we find a rich narrative of the social relations of structural exclusion and demonisation in Marseilles. In one scene the main character describes feelings of rage about a St Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in which people receive favourable treatment at mealtime if they first subject themselves to a gruelling hour of being preached at by the priest.

This imposition of religiosity is no different to the other forms of moral imposition by the market and by the state. The mistake made by all of these apparatuses is that they imagine that any form of compliance means that the battle has been won; that the real story has been erased, that the heart, the mind and the body have been conformed to the will of the powerful.

The soup kitchen scene is a potent example of this myth. It is a relation of power that is institutionalised and morally embedded. When any of us experience it we either flee its haunting significance or we engage with it.

I would like to suggest that if we engage with this uncomfortable reality we leave ourselves open to the most powerful potential for social change, fought for, like all things worth fighting for, under the guiding stars of struggle and hope.

Izzo puts it this way in describing his narrator's feelings for another person on the margins of society: 'He was thinking of another kind of fraternity. The kind that unites somewhere between rage and despair, those who have been rejected. Excluded.'

As I read this book for the first time I remember feeling that it was bursting at the seams with sadness and recognition. Sadness is important as a way of engagement with social inequality and injustice, especially when this sadness translates not into condescending pity or constructed powerlessness but rather firms up into shame, a revolutionary sentiment if ever there was one.

Who can forget the shame we felt over the reality of children being detained behind razor wire? I recall my own sense of shame the first time I was taken by a colleague into Villawood Detention Centre some years ago. Who can deny the sense of deep shame we feel over the Stolen Generations, a shame that gave birth to an apology; a shame that needs to give birth to a repeal of the racist aspects of the Northern Territory Intervention?

During Anti-Poverty Week we are all invited to think carefully about the entrenched inequality in our midst and whether we, as a nation, possess the political will to do better. As Italian theorist, Domenico Losurdo, put it: 'Democracy cannot be defined by abstracting the fate of the excluded.'

John FalzonDr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. Anti-poverty Week is 11–17 October.

Topic tags: st vincent de paul, homelessness, umemployment, anti-poverty week, A Sun for the Dying, Jean-Claude Izzo



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Existing comments

poverty inspires in poetry whilst wealth is enjoying holiday on the beach!

It's a nice story! Please write things like this often.

AZURE | 15 January 2010  

Maybe a nice story Azure, but when it's happening in a Christian community, and happening because the parish priest is unable to take Christ's message on board, it is an ugly story indeed. I carry a short reflection, [taken from our parish bulletin would you believe?] which reminds us that in following Jesus we must not only give but sometimes allow another to take. It means sharing our material resources and exhausting our energy levels and offering an open-handed love.Yet our priest preaches this philosophy but can't remove the log in his eye. Eviction is imminent for a mother and child. Pray for us.

Trish Taylor | 16 January 2010  

TRISH TAYLOR, Capitalism is universal and thriving in the West - which Christians are majority. There contentment is an ugly word. There materialism is equivalent to any religion. BTW. Christianity (especially Roman Catholic) is the materially richest religion - good though.

Poetry seems only to come out of sufferings - especially nowadays.

AZURE | 16 January 2010  

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