At 6:30pm on James Street last week, with a bellyful of cheap Indian food, I came across a young man sitting on the pavement with a cardboard sign at his feet. ‘Homeless, please help’.
If you’re living in Mumbai, I imagine that might seem unremarkable — but I’m living in Perth, Western Australia. A very spacious modern city that is having, so we’re constantly told, an economic boom. Big companies are digging up bits of Western Australia and selling it to other big companies that have factories, mainly in Asia, making Ipads and roofing sheets and jewellery and mining trucks. Apparently we’re rolling in jobs and money. The place has a severe rash of construction sites building houses, apartments, shops, offices, hospitals, highway flyovers and railway underpasses.
And we have more homeless beggars now than ever before.
Many of the beggars around here look pretty fucked-up. They have a jumpy junkie look or a wasted wino look, or they’re mooching around near the betting shop. Or they hang about the train station asking for money for fares but you just know they’re going to spend it on their habit. Some people give them money anyway, out of pity, but I prefer not to. It’s not that I don’t care about them, and I certainly don’t think their problems are their own fault. However I think giving them cash only supports their addiction to whatever kind of trouble they’re in and doesn’t really do them a favour. It isn’t money they need, it’s something more basic: love and care.
But the young man sitting on James Street seemed different. Something about him made me stop and bend down to look at him. He had a clear face, clear eyes and a red graze on the side of his face as if he’d been hit or fallen. As I rummaged for my purse, I asked him how he was.
‘Hungry,’ he said.
‘Hungry,’ I echoed, hoping he might tell me more.
‘Yes, to be honest, hungry.’
‘Would you like me to buy you something to eat?’
‘What would you like?’ (A really stupid question, in hindsight.)
There was an awkward moment. Then I said, ‘I don’t really have time, anyway — there’s somewhere I have to be,’ which was, more or less, the truth. I gave him what change I had and said, ‘Will that help?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’ He gathered up his cardboard sign and faded backpack.
‘Good luck,’ I said, and walked away.
I didn’t look back to see where he went. Along to the kebab shop or the food hall, I hoped. I’d looked him in the eye and felt he was for real, but maybe I was wrong. Either way I hoped that if a few people were kind, it would give him the strength to find his path.
Why am I not a beggar? How come, at least for the moment, I have what I need? Even if the bankers and dirty-energy peddlers somehow manage to avoid cooking the ecosystem as well as the books, my future is pretty uncertain. I really don’t know how my life is going to turn out. Anything could happen. I couldend up on the streets — but I’m pretty sure I won’t.
Why not? Because, luckily, I have a caring family who, although not perfect, do love me, and more-or-less accept me as I am (as difficult as that may sometimes be!). Because, luckily, I’m smart, well-educated and healthy. And because, from this fortunate base of love, security and knowledge, I’ve been able to reach out to others to make and maintain friendships. Because of all this luck, I’ve never gone hungry, never had nowhere to sleep, never had no-one to turn to. If my family or friends were in need I would take them in, and I’m pretty sure they’d do the same for me.
I don’t think ‘homeless’ is the right word. Not having an owned or rented permanent shelter isn’t the point. The real problem is that these unlucky souls are people-less. They don’t have anyone to give them a home.
Maybe they have no family and, even more sadly, no friends. Or maybe they do have family but living rough seems a better choice. When I consider why someone would choose to shun the care and company of others to that extent, I don’t think there’s a real difference between that and being forced onto the streets. Maybe their family are abusive or neglectful or can’t accept them as they are because of prejudice. Or maybe their family believe money is the only measure of value, and whatever it is the person can contribute (which might not be money) is not acceptable to their family, let alone to those who own or rent the roofs.
And I guess some homeless people do have loving family or friends who would give them a home, but they’re too ashamed to ask, or too worried about putting themselves in the other person’s debt. We’re brought up to think it shameful to be anything other than self-reliant, and that to have no possessions is to have the lowest possible status, to be powerless.
Some people — often they’re young, vigorous and childless — choose a form of homelessness, sleeping in communal squats, dumpster diving, scavenging the stuff suburbanites throw out on the kerbside, maybe appropriating supplies from the big corporate stores. Maybe growing vegetables, too. They’re trying to create an alternative community that exists outside the economy and will survive the possibly imminent collapse of civilisation.
There’s part of me that wants to join them. Living that way could be a lot of fun, and if civilisation does collapse it might be the only way to survive. But it doesn’t feel right for me, somehow. I want something more stable, more peaceful. I’d like to live in a collective house, but I’d want it to be warm and comfortable, not a chilly, decrepit squat — and, maybe this is selfish, but Virginia Woolf would back me up — I’d want some privacy: if not a room of my own, at least a cubicle in which to arrange my few personal things and in which to write! And I have two kids, so any living arrangement would have to meet their needs too.
Anyway, I don’t want civilisation to collapse. I want it to morph into something sustainable that works for all kinds of people — parents and children and old people, people with disabilities and illnesses, people who are good with their hands and people who are good with their minds. People who can contribute ideas and services as well as people who can contribute goods.
I like living in a civilisation. I’m in favour of technology — especially communications and medical technology — and I’m in favour of change. With change comes the risk that some things will get worse, and a computer factory is not a garden (but maybe it could be!), but, let’s face it, if not for technology I would be dead several times over. I wouldn’t have survived childhood, let alone my daughter’s breech birth, and even if I had lived, being a 46-year-old woman I’d most likely be illiterate, unenfranchised, in continual pain, married to someone I don’t like, and knowing nothing about the world outside a radius of twenty miles or so.
Technology has created, at least in industrialised countries, the conditions necessary for the average person to think, at least some of the time, about the fate of the whole world instead of just worrying about how to fix their toothache or get their next meal. Because of communications technology (from the printing press to YouTube) everyone — even in America! — knows that there are people living in other countries, and in doorways, whose lives are different to theirs.
But we — humanity, you, me — we’ve got a plague. We know what it is. The clear-eyed young man begging on the street in a boomtown is one of its symptoms.
The plague is called greed. But where does greed come from? Why are we sick with it?
Greed is caused by fear. We’re afraid — and given our evolutionary and social history we have good reason to be afraid! — that our needs for food, security, affiliation, etc, will not be met. We’re afraid that if it came to the crunch no-one would look after us, because our past has convinced us there’s no-one who loves us unconditionally.
But unconditional love does exist. As a mother, daughter and friend, and as an occasional helper of beggars, I can vouch for it. I try to put it into everything I write.
Can you feel it? Not in your head, not in your genitals, not in your belly. In your heart. Can you feel it there? A warm thing? A sense of connection, or of wanting connection?
If so, ask yourself, as I’m always asking myself: what am I using it for? What does my heart (not my other bits) tell me I should be doing? Am I doing what I should be doing? When am I doing it, and when am I not? And when will I stop doing the things that feel wrong, the things I’m doing out of fear rather than love?