You can’t visit your local shops and certainly the city today without coming across homeless people. They’re outside Coles or sleeping right next to slick city stores. Some display desperate signs like ‘Unemployed but willing to do any work for a meal’. In Caulfield a Jewish man offers to do handy jobs in exchange for support. They’re not confined to Melbourne or Sydney; travel virtually anywhere across the world today and you’re confronted by the hapless homeless, the disregarded and disconnected. In my inbox this morning there’s an appeal from Child Fund Australia with the by-line: “A hungry child doesn’t grow” and I think: nor does a hungry adult or any deprived human being.
Homelessness is however about more than hunger, or the loss of a job, although these are critical factors. It’s also about the lack of affordable housing, low wages, personal crises, domestic violence, mental health and addictions. It impacts more men than women and the majority of those affected (60%) are under 35 years old. On any given night across Australia more than 115,000 people are homeless (according to Street Smart Australia). To compound the complexity of the issue, many of those forced into homelessness are not the hopeless and helpless but once they become homeless, face the enormous challenge of getting out of it. And then there is the small number on the street who actually resist permanent housing.
I got to thinking further about homelessness these past few weeks when reading the current Parshiot, especially the Torah readings of Shoftim and Ki-Teitze. Shoftim introduces the victim of a murder found outside the city limits. It gets us (especially through the Talmud) to think about this death. The death of this unknown individual may not necessarily be mourned… friends may have lost track of them. When people see them they may overt their eyes or cross the road. This individual reminds them of the ‘disgrace’ of the human condition and perhaps their own vulnerability; how close we all live to the edge. It’s easy to give a few coins, to move on to our warm and comfortable homes. “He, too, moves on – to harm’s way and the dangers of the street and the night” (Kahn). And so when we then hear about the death of a street person, as Rabbi Kahn suggests, we are forced to acknowledge this corpse was once a human being like us with the breath of God in their lungs…
The Torah confronts our indifference and our dissembling (what can I really do to prevent such things…). It challenges our rationalisations by reminding us we are all responsible for the suffering on our streets. We are simply not allowed to avert our eyes: “And so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You cannot ignore it” (Deut. 22:3) If you cannot be indifferent to your neighbour’s property, you certainly can’t ignore the pain of their person. The Torah constantly reminds us that the purpose of the powerful is to protect the powerless; to look out for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
Four out of ten Australians thinks that homeless people are ‘lazy freeloaders’, ‘stupid failures’ or ‘not working hard enough’ (Salvation Army Poll, 2015). Tony Abbott has been quoted saying “We just can’t stop people from being homeless. It’s their choice”. Responds Kerri-Anne Williams who works at two critical support services: “The clients that I work with are probably the hardest workers I’ve come across… in terms of trying to navigate systems, find employment, attending countless appointments, managing health issues and looking after children – while living in crisis. I don’t think there’s ever any chance to rest”. The damage to self-esteem is enormous.
What can we do to help? During this month of Elul, just weeks away from Rosh Hashanah we sound the shofar every day. It’s a reminder to hear the cry of the needy, to give more tzedakah than usual; that’s a great form of self improvement too! There are countless charities like ‘Feed Melbourne’ and our own Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund (MJCF) and Jewish Care which work tirelessly to keep people far from homelessness. We may not want to give food, money or drink to the homeless person outside the supermarket after all they may use the money for drugs or refuse our offer of food (not my experience). We may think they’re like the young man I recently came across on Las Ramblas Promenade in Barcelona. He had five cups labelled: (1) For food (2) For clothes (3) For weed (4) For alcohol (5) For hard drugs…
There’s no magic solution for the homeless but I would agree with Williams when she says: “Treat them like you would anyone else. When they are homeless they are feeling isolated and ostracised from the community. If you want to do something, it should be to let them know they are still part of the community and we still care”. Look at them, talk to them or at best smile at them.
It’s the least we can do and especially to resist the temptation to say: “This is a problem we can’t solve”. The Torah, through its elaborate “Eglah Arufah” ritual in response to the anonymous corpse proclaims: “We cannot say our eyes did not see this guy, our hands did not shed her blood. In a free society we are all complicit in the failures of our system, we all share the responsibility to continue to seek for solutions.”
To conclude with the words of Vincent Van Gogh: “To save a life is a real beautiful thing. To make a home for the homeless, yes, it is a thing that must be good; whatever the world may say, it cannot be wrong”.