Every night in Western Australia there are over 9,000 people experiencing homelessness.
If you have walked through our city, you will have seen one of the many people experiencing homelessness on our streets. And what did you do in that encounter? Did you offer money? Food? Did you answer them when they spoke to you? Many of our Street Doctor clients say one of the most difficult things to accept is their loss of identity and self-worth; the embarrassment and shame of their situation. And the one action that brings that home is the reluctance of people to look them in the eye and acknowledge them as a human being.
Is it that we feel that if we make eye contact we will acknowledge their crisis, and feel the need to care when it is easier to turn your eyes, shield your heart and go on with your day? Seeing someone struggling is difficult and makes us feel uncomfortable. Empathising with their situation is unimaginable if you yourself haven’t experienced homelessness. The fear and anxiety, the feeling of disconnect from a community you once belonged to, the shame of being homeless, are not feelings you can understand if you haven’t been there yourself.
The perceptions of homelessness need to change. Many people think of rough sleepers when they think of homelessness. The reality is so much bigger than that; people who are couch surfing, living in cars, in temporary accommodation or overcrowded homes. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate; it affects people of all ages, genders, cultures and circumstances. It is not always someone with a substance abuse issue, or a young runaway; or a result of poor choices, but rather the consequence of some tragic circumstance that most of us could never imagine. A result of social circumstance, high costs of living, physical and mental illness, relationship breakdowns and unemployment. At the end of the day they are all human beings, down on their luck, deserving of compassion.
So when you next walk by someone experiencing homelessness, please don’t ignore them, walk faster or pretend to be busy on your phone – look them in the eye and acknowledge them, offer them a human connection; you might just make a positive difference to their day. The act is simple but the result can be more than you imagine.
Look them in the eye. Respond politely. Smile. Create a simple moment of connection. Help someone feel accepted.
You might just be the best part of their day.