I've been thinking about a homeless man I met last week.
But what is homelessness?
When I was a site coordinator for the Australian national Survey of High Impact Psychosis (SHIP), our interviewers had a number of questions to find out if participants had experienced homelessness recently, in the past year, or ever. We had questions about couch surfing and staying with family and friends, or other living conditions. Back in 2010, 1 in 8 participants had been homeless in the previous year.
But, I think, the best way to describe it so we can all identify with people who become homeless, is to give you some examples from my life.
My boss, at one time, used to foster students from overseas to have work experience here in Australia. One of his proteges was staying in a place where another housemate made her feel uncomfortable. So, she came to stay with me until she found another place that suited her.
A classmate had emergency women's accommodation that had a 2-year lease with no renewal, and that lease expired. She told me that a man from her church said she could stay with him, and I arranged to pick her up for coffee the morning after her first night there. No-one mentioned the place was emergency men's accommodation and that she wouldn't be allowed to have her own room. She had to share his room, and his bed, with the door locked all night. She stayed with me after that, until she found another option.
I went to Ash Island (part of Kooragang Island Wetlands) last week, for a walk. There's a lovely fishing and picnic spot that looks out to the Hunter River, and I popped down there to take a few photos. As I arrived, a guy there pulled in a fish, so I went over and congratulated him on his first catch after 2 hours' of patience. We got talking, and I discovered he was living out of his car during the week while he was here for work, and he'd go back to Sydney on the weekend. That night, it was forecast that the temperature would be 7 degrees Celsius. I invited him to stay in my spare room.
Each of these is an example of homelessness (though they all got to sleep in a bed in the spare room, when they stayed with me, which is considered "couch surfing"). At the time, each person had at least one parent at home, and each was welcome to go back to their family home to sleep, whenever they needed. But each person was homeless.
In the first two examples, the women I mentioned made an effort to find their own place; neither relied on me or took me for granted. In the third example, the same can be said, except for one thing; the man drank so excessively that he had developed tolerance (which is a clear sign of alcohol abuse), and he didn't seem to be making an effort to find a place to live.
Now, I could be wrong! He could be paying the rent on his parents' place in Sydney, and not be able to afford rent here as well. But buying a case of beer and drinking it each night can't be doing him or his finances any good.
At one point in the conversation, it dawned on him that we knew each other better than he and his work mates did.
If he and his colleagues had tried to be friendly, maybe he would have had somewhere to live!
He was a nice guy, who was a considerate and helpful guest. I am aware that labelling him an alcoholic can be very judgemental, and I try to avoid being judgemental.
But, at what point does my hospitality rob him of autonomy?
An adult, with a full time job and a car, should be able to get a rental.
Is it actually my hospitality that would rob that man of autonomy, or has that already happened?
Through his own choices, or maybe those of someone else, his autonomy has already begun to erode.
I see houses for lease around my neighbourhood, and wonder why they stay empty for weeks. Are the lessors being greedy?
Well, it has occupied my thoughts ... my parents were great examples of social justice, both in what they advocated and in what they did. I try to emulate what they taught me.
So, my next step needs to balance competing issues, so I don't become jaded and judgemental about homeless people, and so I can be compassionate in practical and respectful ways.
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