Callous New World

Over the last few weeks I have spent some time with Anonymous #OpSafeWinterAdelaide. They spend their time walking around Adelaide City, making sure homeless people are well fed, clothed, warm and hydrated. They also give women sanitary care packages and ensure that their conditions are tolerable despite their situation, even if this means that they just have a chat and listen to the stories they have to tell. Although not all homeless people are receptive to receiving their goods, there are a few characters who are happy just to have someone to talk to.

Over the last few weeks I have spent some time with Anonymous #OpSafeWinterAdelaide. They spend their time walking around Adelaide City, making sure homeless people are well fed, clothed, warm and hydrated. They also give women sanitary care packages and ensure that their conditions are tolerable despite their situation, even if this means that they just have a chat and listen to the stories they have to tell. Although not all homeless people are receptive to receiving their goods, there are a few characters who are happy just to have someone to talk to.

I came across this group quite serendipitously. It was a warm afternoon. The sunlight streaked through my blinds and its glow could be felt on the back of my neck; a burn for something meaningful to write tingled my skin. Naturally, I was perusing through Facebook for inspiration and I came across a name, #OpSafeWinterAdelaide. Everyone here wore Guy Fawkes masks, the symbol that notoriously represents Anonymous. Are these guys … Did I just stumble across a bunch of cyber (h)activists? After a little digging, it turned that this particular branch of Anonymous was dedicated to helping homeless people. What a great idea. I quickly commented. Hey guys! Can I tag along?! I would love to write a piece about what you’re doing here. I was in.

Atop the steps of the Adelaide Railway Station, I introduce myself, shake hands and make a few jokes to ease the social tension. I’m meeting Anonymous! They were the ones who allegedly released Donald Trump’s phone and social security number. The ones that try to take down corruption and evil wherever it hides. It’s all very exciting. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low upon the horizon. The group meets at this time as homeless people are mostly awake at night. It’s safer to sleep during the day when you are surviving on the streets. Traffic is honking and choking their way through the city as everyone tries to get home from their long day at work and back into their warm homes in time for dinner. The group is rugged up against the cool, Autumn air and are dressed for the long, cold night ahead. They gather their plenteous travel and cooler bags full of food and clothing that they brought with them and hit the streets.

About halfway through the night they come across a man they have never met before. His name is John. He had orange, balding hair atop his head and a ginger beard to match. He is wide eyed, surprised by the presence of Anonymous. Not so much because of who they are, but because they are a bunch of strangers. He is wary, and curious. After a brief introduction and handing out of food and warm clothes, it looks like he’s starting to relax. A smile slowly lights up his face. He rambles a little about how grateful he is for the group’s help, and seems to feel little guilty for taking what the group has to offer. It seems like he doesn’t want to be a burden. But he needs it, so he takes the minimum of what the group has to offer. “I only need a jacket”, he started in a gruff but friendly voice, “and maybe some shoes if you have them. Mine are falling apart”. That’s all he would take if the group had left it there. But they can tell that he can use some extra food and a beanie. By this point John warms to them and asks for a spare bag, just in case. He chooses an over the shoulder bag because “you’ll feel it if someone is trying to take it in your sleep”, he says. He sits down on the cold, tiled floors of supermarket he was in front of, hunched over with this hands close to his feet. The fluorescent lights cast John in a sickly dull cream. One of the groups older members, Luke, a brown haired, upbeat Aussie bloke, sits down next to him and adopts a similar pose. They begin to a chat. John tells us that back in his earlier years he had a lot of anger towards everyone. He hated the government, their focus and push on consumerism and their general governance and manipulation of the Australian people. He says, ‘You know, I used to get into a lot of street fights. I was an experienced martial arts fighter and just took out a lot of my anger on people looking for a fight.’ Every one of John’s fingers has been broken at some point, so too the bones in his feet. He’s broken ribs, and his jaw. He has been stabbed in both eyes five times each and cut his head open numerous times. His long, white scars etch across his scalp and his hands are mangled and scarred. Years ago, John was a person he didn’t like. He calls himself an idiot for being this kind of person. He says he had so much anger, perhaps fuelled by the life he leads sleeping on the streets. He recalls one time he had fallen asleep with his radio in his ears, listening to the battering of whatever advertising was current upon his eardrums. He had just had enough and snapped, ripping the headphones out of his ears, destroying his radio and went over to the first person he saw and punched them in the face. He looks at the floor — through the floor — and his eyes glaze over slightly. He is sober now, to try and curb this behaviour, concentrating more on his personal recovery and perhaps making peace with his past. He had a house in which he could go to, a shared home with what sounded like other homeless people. “Sometimes I stay out because the type of people there are not always good”, he says as he refers to drug abuse and alcoholism. He loves having a chat with the group and having some people to laugh and talk with, until he starts to look a little nervous and agitated. This is when the group takes their leave.

What I found interesting was the amount of homeless people rejecting help. Before going out with this group, I assumed that homeless people would be lining up for the free goods that they need in order to survive their time on the streets. This was a naïve assumption. Most of homeless people turned the group away. Others only took goods when it was being handed to them directly. A few even refused altogether until they found out that they were not a religious group or official charity. Perhaps this is due to religious sects expecting homeless people to come into their church, or take up the teachings of their respective faiths. Or maybe they thought they were trying to lure them in with goodies in the attempts to push them into some kind of rehabilitation, like other charities do. Either way, homeless people appear to only accept aid when there is no agenda. This is when they can be connected with too, and reached with words of compassion. When one human being extends a hand to another merely to help and nothing more, you can help to change anyone’s circumstances. Often, when one feels cared for and understood, one listens.

As I follow the group through the streets, I feel the bite of the cold, autumn air on my skin through my jacket, scarf, jeans, shirt and through to my bones. I hunch myself against the wind and tuck my face into my scarf. The temperature has dropped considerably from the start of the night, and I can feel the cold pavement through my shoes. My back aches from walking and I can’t wait to get home to rug up and feed my grumbling tummy. Suddenly, along with the cold and hunger — guilt. No. You are not allowed to feel these things. You’re privileged to have food and a warm home to go to. You are not allowed to complain while around others who have it worse. I attempt to repress how I’m feeling instead of facing it. But then I think, if I am as cold and as hungry as I am after only a night of being on the streets, how must these homeless people feel when they don’t have food, or warm clothes and a bed to go? Smiling with a near euphoric sense of clarity, I feel gratefulness. I continue with a renewed sense of vigour and feel the urge to follow in the group’s footsteps. I think back to something that one of the older members had said earlier, ‘we don’t want accolades. We’re doing this in the hopes that we inspire people to care, take action and maybe do this on their own’. Over the next two hours I cross my journalistic barrier and become involved . I fight the urge to force feed these homeless people, doubling the quantity of sandwiches and finger buns that I hand out.

You realise as you feed these people that you are battling your own prejudices and stereotypes that have been implanted since you were a child. The media in Australia attempt to represent homeless people as best they can, but instead end up representing them as lesser or ‘other’ . The rest of society implore that homeless people are dangerous, that you should stay away from them. They say they are drug abusers or alcoholics when that covers less than 2% of homeless people. They are called obnoxious, self-absorbed, and uncaring by the same people who are stepping over starving men and women. How can this be when 33% of homelessness is due to domestic violence and family break downs or “time outs”. They might say, “Oh, you know plenty of homeless people actually choose that lifestyle” or “They should just get a job and things will be fine”. I cannot count how many times I have heard this. How can this be when 8% of homelessness is due to financial difficulties and 42% is due to housing crisis’ and inadequate or inappropriate dwellings ? Even if some of this is true in some contexts, situations and for some individuals, it seems to me an excuse to ignore the responsibility we have as a society for its members. Often homeless people are discarded, asked to move somewhere else or prohibited from certain areas as they make the city look dirty and uncared for. And they’re right; the city does look uncared for. They remind the common folk of an unaddressed, governmental issue — an issue some people would rather pretend doesn’t exist. They remind us of the Government that gives little care to homeless people by providing inadequate housing for them. They challenge the idea that we live in a perfect and functional utopia where everyone is happy and drinking tea from dainty little thimbles made from the gumdrops of a rainbow. They remind us that people do get left behind. The homeless are people like any other, and this Do Not Feed the Animals sign is a weak, taught construct. It’s a construct that goes against our natural impulse to help. It allows us to avoid the trouble of caring, allows us to keep saying that we want things to change whilst giving us a reason not to change them. This isn’t sustainable, and it has to stop. “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” — John Stuart Mill (1867).