Back in April
I spoke to an armed robber named Earl who was lying on the pavement near a bank in Central Sydney. Just out of prison
, he had nothing but a bundle of clothes, a blurred tattoo of an eight ball on his forearm and a piece of cardboard he’d fished out of the bin and used to scrawl a message with a broken pencil.
It said: ‘Sleeping rough. Need money for food. Help. Happy Easter. Jesus Loves you’.
This was Easter Monday, and I had already walked half way up George Street (quite likely the busiest wealthiest and loudest stretch of road in Australia, Sydney's main street) and by I had covered the three kilometers from the railway station to the Harbor I had seen twelve other men like him- butts numbed by cold concrete, hard luck stories summarized on discarded wrapping materials and waiting, with varying degrees of fatalism, for some loose change or whatever else the world was going to throw their way. Most of them were aiming for $25 which seems to be the going rate for a violent flea ridden hostel in the inner-city, and failing that they sleep under the bridge.
Earl had just finished an eight year sentence, and seemed genuinely cheerful. He told me that overall things had been better for him on the inside, but stretched out with what almost looked like comfort and nothing for people to toss their charity into but a small plastic cup with a brown ring of congealed coffee at the bottom, he didn’t seem to feel the need to showcase his distress to the passing masses.
Before prison, Earl said, he’d almost attained a sort of respectability. Yes, he had been doing armed robberies, but he’d also been working, and with the money from both was making progress towards paying off a house. He was a Christian then too, he said. God kept on telling him to stop, but he hadn’t listened.
Just up the street from him was John, who was probably more typical. He was cynical, and had been on the begging on and off for years. He had meet notepad wielders like me before and even had a pithy introduction ready to go when I asked him how had ended up sitting on a milk crate in George Street.
‘John, 47 years old, homeless, heroin addict, alcoholic’.
He had the look of a former hippy and a story about how he had been exiled from New Zealand after defrauding the government of $100,000. His talk of heavy drug use surprised me a bit as his skin was clear and he wasn’t skinny. He was keenly aware of his semi-invisibility as a beggar and bitter about it. The view from his milk crate, all expensive shoes and well feed children, made him brood and mutter darkly.
How many of them, he asked me as though I might have an answer, would have to throw a dollar his way before he had somewhere to sleep for the night? But did they care? And why did everyone just assume he would be better off with food instead rather than money? Couldn’t they understand that for him heroin was a need, not a choice. And if he had his long list of reasons for thinking that McDonalds wasn’t suitable for human consumption, who were they to judge him when he refused their Big Mac?
The last guy I spoke to was Ray, an articulate man of thirty sitting on the pavement outside some marbled corporate foyer, who was almost an exception. Although like the rest of them he had not a single friend or relative to turn to in Sydney, he came from an Aboriginal community out in Western NSW where he did know everyone and would always have a place to stay. His story was of finishing a Vocational College course and then heading to the city to try and find work with the government, but there was nothing going.
He was cold and hungry- outwardly almost indistinguishable from any of the other people begging that day, but after taking to him for five minutes it became clear that he wasn’t. Whatever the problems that indigenous communities in this country have they are generally still places in which the ties of kinship and community remain strong. If he really wanted to he could go back and would be accepted, and he said that if things didn’t look up by the time it got cold, this is probably what he would do.
I could picture a future for Ray, but with the other guys I spoke to that Easter Monday conversation was a bit like staring into an abyss. One thing was very clear. The story of why people end up begging on city streets almost always had something to do with a family breaking down and a community that didn‘t care. A defeated looking guy sitting on the pavement outside IAG summed it up like this: ‘Lost me job, lost me wife, lost me kid’.
People end up eating out of bins on Australia’s main street not because they have problems with mental health, substance abuse or a criminal record but because they have all of these things and a complete lack of anywhere else to go. Anyone who can book a plane ticket to Delhi can see for themselves that in some places people are forced onto the street through lack of state resources, but not here. We have both the money and the structures in place that could keep people from having to beg for spare change and bed down in public restrooms, but for some, it seems, the system simply doesn’t work.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the George Street beggars with their cardboard signs asking for God to bless you and a little change, it it could well be that for all the outward sophistication of life and government in the 21st century in the end a loving family and meaningful sense of community are still the only really reliable forms of welfare we have.