Don’t Lose It
I gave a homeless man $50. Why don’t I feel good about it? Because he had to ask, because he’d been sleeping out in the winter cold, because he said it would give him three nights in a shelter, because he said I hate asking, I don’t want to steal, because I could see this on his face, because that very afternoon I had been writing a poem about the comfortable colours of home, because I was heading for the shops, meeting friends in a café, because a neo-liberal shadow was laughing at my gullibility. Don’t lose it I said to him sounding like a parent, patronizing, I believe your story. He wanted to hug me, I stiffened, could barely look him in the eye, could barely look at his rotting teeth. I won’t hurt you he said. I don’t know you I replied. Goodbye I said and left him with the surprise of $50 in his hand.
Afterwards the brightly-lit shopping arcades felt insulting. At the cafe my friends listened to this story their faces neutral. It’s rough out there says one then moves the conversation on. We are middle class with bank accounts and superannuation plans. I can spend $50 in a flash on a few items at the gourmet grocer. I hoped the man wouldn’t spend it on drugs or alcohol. At least on food, if not the bed he’d asked for; he’d been sleeping under the grandstand on the hill where many homeless men go. Beneath that grandstand there are studios where I used to go to evening dance classes that would disturb their peace. Did he go to a shelter, did he feel warm for three nights? And then what? Next time I’ll tell him to go to City Mission. I’ll give them the money to help him. I don’t feel good about it. Life has been generous to me but not to others. He is one “other”, one of the bottom 5% the housing analysts talk about. Saying yes or no to a person on the streets makes me feel the same: uncomfortable, confused, guilty. None of this is useful. The scales of justice are lopsided. $50 is useful. And if he is a drug addict what pushed him to that edge? Everyday the papers tell us stories of people sleeping rough. At least it’s in the news but at the grandstand, those papers are bedding for the night.
I’d been writing in my booked-filled home, then went to the city. I stepped out of my car to feed the parking meter. Excuse me . . . he said and so the story began. Did he really buy three nights in a shelter, did the $50 make him feel better? That miserable $50. I want to imagine him in a warm bed, with food, a warm shower, clean clothes, clean teeth, caring company. He’d been cut off from Centrelink. When did he first lose his link to the centre? When he was born? Is his life’s work just getting through each day? The Minister said no. No he wasn’t going to increase the level of Newstart, he wanted people to have a job. Imagine the capital M Minister with his own capital B Benefits meeting this small, anxious, grubby man with the rotten teeth and offering him a job.
I want him out of sight but he stays in my mind. All the informed thinking, explaining, the Big Ideas debating and the earnest understanding I have about “the problem” doesn’t make it any easier face to face. Don’t lose it. Don’t waste it. Don’t touch me. Don’t ask me again. I don’t want to judge his worthiness nor mine. I gave a homeless man $50. I don’t feel good about it. I was not kind.