Homelessness: how you can help
The cold winter air is sweeping through our city, and if your daily journey to work is anything like mine, you’ll see a throng of city workers making their way to their offices wrapped snugly in coats and scarves.
This scene is so different from the one I enjoyed only a few weeks ago as I watched some of my grandchildren playfully splashing in the waves in the English summer sun in Kent. As soon as we arrived back in Sydney, my wife Carol and I pulled out the blankets, jumpers and a heater or two, conscious that winter here has well and truly set in. A fact that none in the UK believes!
For many in this city who have no place to call home, this new season has brought much more than a simple change of wardrobe. I am reminded of this every time I step outside our Wesley Mission office here in Pitt Street. In the last nine months, the number of people sleeping rough on Sydney streets has risen by 23 per cent. This rise is concerning, and the coldness these people experience goes beyond a physical shiver.
Laura Ingalls Wilder once said “Home is the nicest word there is”. If you’re like me, you’ll know what she meant. I often appreciate the feeling of arriving home at the end of a long day, and being able to rest and take a breath. Ideally, home is more than a means of physical shelter and comfort; it is also a place of emotional refreshment and support.
For a rising number of Australians home is simply not a reality. I have sat and spoken with many who persevere without the physical and emotional comforts of home that many of us take for granted, and the despair some of them feel is understandable and considerable.
My first encounter with homelessness was in my early university years when I was in hospital with suspected glandular fever. I soon realised that one of the patients in my ward was homeless and wrestling with various addictions, one of which was alcohol. He and I struck up a friendship and stayed in touch. He would often call me through the night, after several drinks, and as you can imagine, it was not always easy to know how to help. Sometimes it was difficult to respond patiently. Yet through listening and being with him in that time, I was able to reassure him.
When I received news that this man had died, I was deeply affected. He was not a statistic; he was a human being with whom I had a connection. After his passing I began to rethink the direction of my career, and decided I wanted to work in an area that would enable to me to make a difference to people like this friend.
For me, homelessness is one of the most important issues a society can hope to address. It is a priority for me and I keep looking at new ways of advocating for those who are homeless and socially disadvantaged. I am constantly mindful that we need to reach out to people who are marginalised not only as a society, but also as individuals.
Individually it can be hard to know how to help. As a worker in a suit and coat, you might ask ‘how could I possibly do anything about this problem?’ As an ordinary person going about their daily business and with not a lot of money, you might be thinking, ‘what good could I possibly do?’
The early Methodists knew the answer to both these questions hundreds of years ago. It is simply, ‘All the good you can’. As individuals, we cannot necessarily give shelter to everyone without a home. We cannot supply all the food the hungry in our city need, yet we can volunteer our time or money. With a smile we can offer to buy the person sitting in front of us on the street a meal and take the time to chat with them. Building a friendship with one person in need could literally transform their life.
I often remember my friend Roger all those years ago, and hope my friendship made those hours of difficulty a little more bearable. I hope that knowing he had an ear willing to listen helped him to know he was important and valued. I remain troubled because of the fact that I suspect I did not do enough. It has influenced the way that I will live my life for ever. I pray that in our city the life of each person in difficulty will be changed even a little because one person reaches out to them. Perhaps that one person could be you.