Our Attitude To The Homeless Is The Reason Their Numbers Are Rising

The inaction of those in power thrives on our apathy.

I was withdrawing cash from an ATM the other day when I noticed a homeless woman slumped over on the footpath beside me.  In front of her, a weathered baseball cap held a few coins, and I assumed she was sleeping.  It wasn’t until another passer-by knelt down to check on her that I realised she was unconscious.

Embarrassed at my own capacity for dismissal, I bent down to offer a hand.

"I can’t get a response out of her," the middle-aged man informed me. "I think I’ll call the ambulance…"

"Let’s see if she’s breathing first," I replied, leaning over the woman’s limp frame and putting an ear to her face.

"Oh for fuck’s sake!" thundered a voice behind us. Startled, I whirled around to see a tiny, determined woman dashing over.  She brushed past me and began slapping her friend.  "She’s all good," she informed us, waving us away. "Don’t call a bloody ambulance!"

Image: Getty.

My fellow first responder seemed unconvinced, and began dialling the emergency number into his phone.

"Don’t," came a whispered protest.  It was the homeless woman, her eyes beginning to open.

The man hung up the phone.

My nerves were still sizzling as I got up to return to my car.  My new acquaintance was headed the same way and we broke into one of those slightly frantic conversations you have when you’ve just shared an unexpected experience.

"It was nice to see someone stop to help," I offered.

"Oh I’ve done it before.  People always seem to overdose while I’m walking past."  He lowered his voice.  "They don’t want you to call an ambulance because that ruins their high, you know?"

"I’ve heard that.  They say that dealers are spiking the heroin with fentanyl.  That’s why there’s so many more ODs."

As I chattered away, I was hit by a pang of guilt.  My musings suddenly felt self-righteous.  I remembered an article I’d written a few years back in which I’d chastised people for their patronising attitudes to the homeless.  But here I was, indulging in the exact sort of self-congratulatory compassion I’d publicly derided.

Homelessness has increased by 14 percent since the last census. Image: Getty.

Every few months the homeless crisis makes its way to the top of the news cycle and a ceremony of collective hand-wringing begins.  In early 2017, when rough sleepers formed a protest camp outside Flinders Street in Melbourne, a flurry of words were dedicated to dissecting the issue. The state government committed to a $45 million funding package, but admitted that the problem would not be alleviated without federal money.

That money never came.

And so the problem gets worse.  Homelessness has increased by 14 percent nationally since the last census.  In Melbourne, the number of people sleeping rough rose an alarming 74 percent between 2014 and 2016. So why the disparity between words and meaningful action?

This was the question bouncing around my mind on the drive home from my recent encounter.  I hadn’t even known my fellow responder, and yet we’d felt comfortable making judgmental asides about the apparent choices of ‘the homeless’.  Perhaps we should examine the role these attitudes play in cementing the problem.

Think about conversations you’ve shared when approached by a homeless person.  I don’t give them change in case they use it for drugs.  They say they want money for food but when I offered a guy a burger he turned it down...

It’s frightening how easily we decide that someone isn’t worthy of respect based on some imagined moral deficit.  We’ve become so used to placing ourselves in a position of superiority, to appraising the moral character of the homeless people we encounter, we don’t stop to question our own motivations.

Image: Getty.

What is the assumption implicit in all this judgment?  Do we subconsciously believe that people who steal or use drugs are less deserving of a stable place to sleep than others?  Do we tell ourselves these stories of moral transgression amongst the homeless community to assuage the guilt of not doing more?  Perhaps the lack of meaningful action on homelessness stems from our collective tolerance for the problem.

The budget offered no direct relief for the homeless.  A recent report from Domain Group found that Melbourne homes are less affordable than ever, with rents increasing 76 percent in a decade compared to only 37 percent for wages.

The state government’s funding package for stop-gap measures like emergency accommodation and crisis centres is a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.  More affordable and social housing is what’s desperately needed, and there’s no sign yet of anyone committing the money.

We need to ask ourselves if we believe that everyone deserves basic dignities like a stable place to live, no matter their place on some arbitrary scale of morality.  If the answer is yes, we must put pressure on our representatives to do more.

But we also need to look at our own attitudes. The inaction of those in power thrives on our apathy.