I’m lost in Melbourne walking down Little Lonsdale St attempting to find a Japanese restaurant where I’ll later meet some friends. As I walk towards Elizabeth St, I see a lady with a pram about to cross the road. She looks me straight in the eyes and asks if I have any change. I’ve developed a habit where I try as much as possible to give some money or food when asked.
I used to justify not giving change, telling myself, ‘I’m doing them a favour because they’ll spend it on drugs, which will harm them.’ Or, ‘I already donate to a charity, which will eventually help them.’
Something changed for me when I heard a Missionary of God’s Love priest talk about his decisions when asked for change. He told us that he sees it as a gift. He’s not interested how the person spends the money, it’s more important to him that they experience a sense of love in their encounter.
It’s important for him that they are recognised and that their existence is acknowledged. How the individual chooses to spend that money is their prerogative. Perhaps alcohol or cigarettes might be the only comfort they have on a cold wet Melbourne night.
So I gave the woman $2 and said have a good night. I can’t imagine the fear and burden of asking people for change and being rejected, while also trying to find accommodation for yourself and your child every night, while also carrying all your belongings and possibly working your way through trauma and possibly addiction.
We all have our issues but some of us were just lucky to be born into a world that provided us with resources and support. Some of us weren’t given that luxury and are now forced to live in a world where decisions are made by a privileged few.
Having walked down Little Lonsdale St for a while (and after absent-mindedly staring at my GPS for perhaps five minutes) I realised I was walking in the wrong direction.
I turned around and walked up the hill. Walking towards Swanston St, I passed the mother. We smiled and I overtook her. As I was walking I overheard her speaking with her child: ‘At this rate it’ll be very dark when we find accommodation. Kiddo I don’t think you’ll be able to enjoy Halloween… yes we do need to keep brave and positive sweetheart.’
Something about hearing a 5 year old console her mother broke my heart. I turned around and offered $5. This was a small consolation and $7 will do very little to help their situation.
I walked away confused and befuddled. I had a small sense of the urgency that Frederic Ozanam must have felt all those years ago when he started the St Vincent de Paul Society.
It breaks my heart as for that child this world is all she may know. Her horizons are being shaped by how she witnesses strangers talk and treat her mother. As she feels and embodies the stress of living on the street, this stress will become her norm. Unless something happens for that child, it is highly likely that she too will live a life like her mother, relegated by the leaders of the privileged world to a life of poverty.
It’s time we structured our society around supporting those who are struggling to make ends meet. It’s time to stop ignoring them and blaming them for the situation they have found themselves in. It is harsh to stigmatise victims of abuse and trauma and hide them from the privileged eye. It is happening every day and children are being born into this world and are expected to dance to a tune they’ve never heard with moves they’ve never been taught. And then when they use the moves taught by their mother and ask for change, we tell them we don’t have any.
Our lives are going fine, so why would we want change?
Michael Walter works for the St Vincent de Paul Society, Victoria.