There’s a woman in Byron who sleeps on the streets. I first saw her when I was going to get my nails done at a nearby beautician. The irony didn’t escape me. Two women, two very different lives.
There is nothing quite as vulnerable and intimate as sleep. It’s the reason we have homes, so we can engage in this restorative practice in safety. You can’t protect yourself when you sleep, you are defenceless. It’s why we lock our doors at night.
But what happens when you have no door? Here was a woman who must sleep in the open for her safety. I walk by her on my way to a manicure. This is not something mentioned in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Getting your nails filed and buffed is not crucial to maintaining my wellbeing. It’s an indulgence. Something privileged middle-class women like me do because we ‘deserve’ it.
Doesn’t the sleeping woman deserve a bed more than I deserve a manicure? A bedroom of her own? Safety? Warmth? Privacy? She’s so public in her homelessness it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel bad about my manicure. The irritation of my chipped nails is meaningless narcissism. I drop some gold coins onto her bed – more for me, I think on reflection, than for her.
Then I try not to see her. Partly because of how hard it is to really take in the stark reality of her life and how she got here and where she’s going to end up and partly because her sleep feels like a private place.
While my nails are shaped by a lovely stranger who treats me with respect and care I wonder what it must be like to sleep rough. Who would I be if that woman on the sidewalk was me? Would I still be Mandy? Or would I disappear? Become one of society’s ghosts. The people we’re not prepared to see. Or speak to. The people who frighten us because they’re dirty, or drunk, or loud, or crazy. Sometimes they’re angry.
I guess If I were on the street and I saw rich bitches like me getting their nails done I’d get angry too. If I lived on the street I’d certainly make sure I was drunk most of the time. I don’t know how else I’d cope with the intense visibility of my vulnerability.
People say, ‘you should ask for help’. What does it feel like to be so clearly asking for help at times and have no-one answer the call? I wonder what happened to that person. What did they once want from their life? How could things change for them? Who are they? That person that you rush past – that is someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s son. A mother once held that man as a baby with hope and love.
It must take incredible resilience to survive such hard circumstances. What is their sense of future? Violence? Sickness? Death? It’s almost too painful to contemplate. It seems to me wherever I go now, from our major cities to our towns, that more and more people are on the street. Why isn’t the government taking notice? Why aren’t we taking notice? With increasing compliance issues for Centrelink resulting in many people losing income, with people experiencing mental illness and addiction shut out of a fiercely competitive and over-priced rental market, what did we think was going to happen? Do we think if we ignore it that it will just go away? See those people shitfaced and dirty on the street.
Well, they are OUR responsibility. This isn’t easy. Homelessness is confronting. Per capita we Australians are among the most affluent people in the world. Our quality of living compared to the rest of the world is through the roof, so why can’t we do better than this? In Byron Bay where people pay $15k a week for a holiday rental why are there so many who don’t have anywhere to go? This is the real air bnb.
Does seeing someone sleeping on the street take the shine off your holiday? This is the reality of what happens in an inflated housing market. At the moment I feel like we are living in a country that is playing this game called ‘let’s pretend homeless people don’t exist’. The more we play that game, the more and more homeless there seem to be. Homelessness is not something that is easily fixed. They are not an anomalous group that are going to be responsive to one solution.
And you can lose the ‘noble savage’ fantasy. People experiencing housing distress aren’t always warm and cuddly. People are homeless for many reasons: mental illness, drug- and alcohol-related issues, poverty, choice. But is it a choice? Is being refused a rental choice? Is being dirt poor a choice? Is being an addict a choice? Is growing up in foster care a choice? Being sexually abused?
I don’t know. I get the feeling no-one would actually make those choices if they were TRULY given a choice. I don’t have any solutions, except to say that I think the best place to start is to see the ‘homeless’ as individuals. Perhaps, the first thing we need to do, is to SEE them.