Late last night, I found myself once again in the back blocks of Woolloomooloo, Sydney. My memories of Woolloomooloo forty years ago are clouded by mental images of rotting terrace houses and slum dwellings. I can vividly remember nightly walking through whole rows of these dwellings, many having been marked for demolition and coming across homeless people sleeping in them everywhere. I had to be very careful where I put my feet when I walked in the darkness through these places because every floor of these buildings was either rotten or had been so savaged by developers that there were missing floorboards everywhere.
However, between the holes in the floor I would regularly find a pathetic bundle of blankets and in that blanket would find a sleeping adult or child.
In winter time, the homeless people had in an outside grassy space created a huge fire, around which they would gather to keep warm before moving off to sleep. In fact, reflecting on it, this is probably where a lot of the missing floorboards had ended up. The glow from the flames lit the buildings and individuals with an eerie light.
It was surreal scene and reminded me then of a Kafka movie.
Walking through Woolloomooloo last night, although it has been renovated on a grand scale, depressingly reminded me of how little things had changed. The bundles of blankets remain. Only now they were laying in covered public spaces and squares. The first thing I noticed as I walked into a little public square was the number of people sleeping this way under whatever shelter they could find. Often their worldly goods would be held in one of those traveller bags with wheels, the handle of which would be pointing to the sky near the head of a rugged up sleeping human being. That scene reminded me of how a graveyard scene looked when newly filled graves are identified with a little mound of dirt on top and a wooden cross pushed into the dirt. In some “squares” all of the clothes and bags would be thrown together indicating a community of the lost had formed. I have found these “communities of the lost” to be very loving, caring and mutually supportive. I have also found them to be very tolerant of the myriad of psychiatric illnesses that are publically on display. But there everybody helps everybody else.
Seeing all this once again was, for me, like I was back forty years ago.
So much has changed in our world and yet so little! It saddens me to think that after forty years of working in this field, for most unfortunate poor buggers who slip through the cracks, very little has changed! I have recently come across a saying by a very prominent Buddhist monk. It goes “you don’t stop sweeping up the leaves just because the leaves keep falling off the tree”. Many of these homeless people are like leaves falling off society’s tree. (In fact one said to me “I feel I am surplus to society’s requirements”).
It is a good thing that Governments are accepting the corporate, banker line that the best thing to do is to put money into preventive programs. However, no matter how many of these prevention programs there are, individuals will always fall through the cracks. But because we are so obsessed with outcomes today these people fall into invisibility. That means advocates like me and organisations like my Exodus Foundation who essentially sweep leaves up off the street, become invisible too in this Government and corporate drive towards outcomes.
I am sick to death of Governments and corporates who come out and proudly proclaim programs for homeless people are better than ever. What I am finding is that a selected few individuals receive better treatment than they would have before but even more people end up on the streets. This is borne out by statistics which show that in spite of all the rhetoric regarding what a good job the Government is doing with regard to homeless people there are over 100 more homeless people on inner Sydney streets today than this time last year.
I hope goodly people receive this rhetoric with the jaundiced eye or ear. If it were true I wouldn’t today be wandering through Sydney suburbs like Woolloomooloo at night feeling that time had stood still for the past forty years.