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Byron Shire
March 1, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Welcome homeless

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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Welcome Homeless

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.

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  1. No solutions except seeing the individual? Oh come on Mandy. You can do better than that! Yes, maybe it’s a start to changing how we see people who experience the down side of this nation’s
    affluence, but it’s a personal response. You said about homeless people being the responsibility of society as a whole – well that’s where significant actions for change have to be. Of course there’s no simple or single remedy, but always if we want change we have to do something/s.
    So Mandy how about a follow up column inspiring people to action? You know what I mean you’ve seen and publicly supported social movements for change. Gotta walk the talk sister!

  2. I heard recently of a professional woman walking to a seminar in Sydney when she encountered a young woman sleeping on the footpath, people rushing past on their way to work, looking at their phones. She stopped and greeted the woman handing her some coins. Not being able to get this woman out of her mind, she looked for her the next day, and found her in the same spot. This compassionate woman took the young woman to a hotel and paid for a week’s accommodation for her. Not long after the young woman contacted her with the news that because of this kind gesture she had gone out and got herself a job and a shared rental.I agree with you Mandy, the first step for us is to SEE the homeless person and not look the other way.

  3. Swanston Street Melbourne on a winter weekend afternoon. Not a sight to behold. But a sight we all need to be confronted with. Melbourne streets and all city and town streets. People cast out .We the people who are not them are made to believe that it is their own fault. The mantra from the Morrison government ‘if you have a go you get a go’. We should have a go to get the thousand of unoccupied dwellings occupied.

  4. So good to read this and know you understand – I believe the huge majority of poverty is caused by the lack of affordable housing and I am always amazed at how judgmental and unsympathetic people seem to be. It is a disgrace in an affluent society that so many are either homeless or suffering severe rental stress which impacts on all other aspects of their lives.

    • The crime of not having enough income to pay the current prices . . . OR like in Byron Shire, there are NO rentals! I needed to move to Brisbane to get a roof over my head.

  5. Great article Mandy, thank you for tackling such a difficult and uncomfortable topic. Maybe we don’t have the answers yet, but we certainly need to put our heads together and come up with the questions we need to ask. That is more likely to happen if we are willing to see that there is a problem both individually and globally. From spending time in different countries around the world I can see big differences in the number of homeless people sleeping in the streets of different cities. It is not the affluence of the country, but the social fall back nets built into the fabric of each individual place that seems to make the biggest difference: True numbers are (for obvious reasons) very hard to come by. Two weeks ago they did the first homeless census in Paris by having a team of volunteers going through the streets and parks counting every person sleeping outside. They found: 3000 and this is still an under estimate.
    Look at the difference between San Francisco with 4300 homeless in 2017( almost 500 for every 100.000)and New York (45 homeless for every 100.000). It used to be a massive problem in New York. The city decided to tackle the problem and put a lot of thought and resources into it. The results are impressive. My takeaway: solutions may not come from global or country wide policies, but more likely from the individual locality. I agree with Mandy: we need to see it and try and understand it case by case.

  6. The only social response is affordable housing which means high rise for that purpose and the Greens don’t want that neighbourhood any more than the other affluent. I was on the streets in Sydney one night, nowhere to sleep I was happy, and passed a woman in the park visibly shivering from the cold. I had a coat but still couldn’t give it to her, mea culpa. Whatever the reason is, it’s not always a simple case of societal reckoning. Maybe the world can adopt a more Islamic approach to the differences between rich and poor, or a Marxist levelling. In another example, I offered my spare room to someone I knew through a friend. My place was too far for him to walk and he didn’t understand the geography. Later he found digs himself, after I had to dispose of stuff imagined in frankenstein movies. No ultimate solutions. Little steps, most of them sideways, and maybe chance encounters matter. Or don’t. To make it a moral issue or a social cause is to deny what might be a thousand historical unhappy facts, no one’s fault but oh … we can’t blame fate or God, that would be fatuous.

  7. One action would be to support One Roof Byron which is aiming to do something constructive. They have a listing in the back of the Echo each week.

  8. I used to be scared of homeless people. Something that carried through from my mother. ‘Don’t look, walk right past, no, don’t give them money, they’ll just use it on drugs’ kind of response.
    I never looked at them as an individual, they were the unmentioned, the faceless, the ones we should ignore.
    I don’t do that anymore. I meet them with my eyes, I say hello, I give them some coins. Even tho I’m only a few short steps away from homelessness myself. Perhaps BECAUSE I’m just a few short steps away. I actually don’t have a home, I house sit because I can’t afford a home. At least I don’t have any major mental illness or addiction. I can still function in the world, I have found a way to survive the ridiculous rents. It’s always only temporary. I can’t settle, can’t put down roots. It’s a week here and a couple there. But I get a door to lock, I get to be safe and comfortable. Not like those living it rough. With a waiting list of over ten years for govt assisted housing, it’s no wonder so many people are on the streets.
    I’m sure there is much more we can do other than just to see them. Govt and council could start by accepting that this is a very real problem that won’t just go away. They could stop knocking back cheap housing alternatives, get rid of regulations around the minimum size a home has to be , allow people to live in caravans or tiny homes on blocks of land. Thus Is being done successfully in other places in the world. They could give the farmers some tax cuts for allowing people to have shipping container homes installed on their land. Honestly, there are so many ideas and alternatives to living rough if only govt and council would give a s–t.

  9. How about actually asking this woman these questions? Actually finding out her story and coming up with a solution instead of hiding behind your fake sympathy? The real problem with homelessness is that people pretend to care by just noticing. Writing a “thoughtful” story or comment hoping someone else will actually do something useful. And then continuing on with their lives feeling like they’ve done something good for the homeless. You want action? Volunteer at a shelter, or raise money for food programs. Or actually talk to them so they don’t feel so lonely and rejected? Show some humanity instead of satisfying your ego.

  10. Morrison said ‘If you have a go you get a go’. That sounds more
    like running a red light. Yes, ONE ROOF BYRON could help…
    still The Visible has many of us pondering how to put humanity
    back into the human-kind we’re supposed to be. More housing?
    A must. Still, I’m worried about The Invisible as well. They’re
    wandering through supermarkets with a budget that’s buggered.

  11. The solution is mind-blowingly simple. Everyone who is saddened by the thought of homeless people just needs to take at least one, preferable more, homeless people into their home until they are back on their feet.

  12. Thank you for writing this Mandy, i do a little bit of work with the homeless in Byron and at first i found it challenging and now i ‘know’ some of these colourful people its opened my heart. No one chooses to live this way
    .. the old saying..’there but for the grace of god go I ..really applies here. ?

  13. A stable home is the single most important element of breaking cycles of poverty and social disadvantage. There is a lot all levels of government could be doing to ease the harms and increase social and affordable housing, as individuals we can make sure our representative know that this is a community priority. I don’t know how government does not see the cost effectiveness of providing this one element; reduced costs in the justice system, the health system, the welfare budget… and so on.

  14. My sister made a habit of not just feeding homeless people, she would take them home and give them a bed, a bath and some new clothes. Most were appreciative but returned to their street dwellings, but one young man she helped rebuilt his life. He ended up getting married and having children and a few years later wrote and thanked her for helping him get off the first rung of the ladder.

    I’m a pommie, so I don’t know much about homeless people here in Australia. But I can tell you that in the UK the number of homeless was directly linked to the closing down of mental health hospitals during the late Eighties and early Nineties. Many former inmates ended up on the street. As a rule, what happens in the UK is oft reflected here.

  15. The irony didnt escape you. That’s because you are such a deep thinker.
    I thought you were into environmentalism …but this week you are doing your nails!

    I totally agree with Anna Banana – FAKE SYMPATHY!

    I lived in Byron for a few years. I gave several homeless people a bed a different times, looked after their property because they had nowhere to store it, provided food, encouraged them to take up worthwhile creative activities. WALK THE TALK, MANDY!

    The truth is, EVERYONE deserves compassion and respect. It doesnt matter whether they are homeless or not.
    And do you really do that Mandy? Because that wasnt my experience of meeting you.


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