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Homeless is where the heart is

Homeless is where the heart is

by Melanie Duval-Smith
November 13, 2014

So, you are not allowed to feed the homeless on the streets of Florida. Last week, a 90 year old man and two Christian ministers were arrested for doing just that. I can hear the cries of the right wingers from here. “Not in our back yard”, “It’s not safe”, “I get harassed walking down my own street”. I’m no stranger to the concept. I lived part time on Karangahape Rd, the hobosexual highway of New Zealand. My front door opened to the most frequented bench seat on the strip. It was not unusual to be asked four times by the same person for spare change. That was just on a trip to the dairy next door. Sometimes I gave change, sometimes not. People would caution “don’t feed the pigeons” and truth be told, it could be distressing, the relentless reminder of someone else’s misfortune.

There have been claims that giving the homeless food perpetuates the cycle of poverty. As if the homeless are simply a bunch of indolent chancers who, if deprived of an easy meal, will realise the folly of their ways and scurry back to the shelters, away from all the decent folk. All too often, the link between vagrancy and poor mental health is forgotten. How, I’m not quite sure, as my progression down K-road was never without the company of internal monologues set free, quirky gyrations, enthusiastic ukelele strumming, and nonsensical tirades. Moving the homeless off the streets and medicating those with mental health issues initially seems like the ideal solution for all. However, I know from my experience nursing in psychiatric units, that the medications used in these situations are described by patients as “completely numbing”, and the people spoke of feeling completely removed from themselves, unable to experience any emotion at all. So, while the average citizen believes that the homeless shouldn’t be forced to degrade themselves with their behaviour, the transient often describes their existence as a better one than when medicated. At the very least, it’s their choice. Auckland Action on Poverty succinctly outline some of the other real problems that people may be missing regarding our civic responsibilities.

The City of Fort Lauderdale actually has a long history of homeless initiatives, which shouldn’t go unrecognised. They are making provisions for the homeless, but on their terms, indoors and out of sight. There are some distinctly advantageous parts to their latest laws, such as strengthening the defecation and urination rules… can’t argue with that one. Auckland City itself passed a bylaw last year which states that ‘Beggars who are deemed intimidating or causing a nuisance will be banished from Auckland's streets”. Interestingly, I found it hard to discover where they will be banished to. 69% of voters voted to pass this law.

Obviously society as a whole cannot simply accept the negative impact that this behaviour causes when left unchecked. Walking through human effluent and, at times feeling threatened, is decidedly suboptimal for any community, but it never hurts to get a small glimpse from the other side. Perhaps what bothers me the most about this kind of legislation is that it helps to widen the ever growing chasm between the haves and have nots. There have been many studies carried out on social behaviours which show that in general, the less you have the more likely you are to give, and the more likely you are to take care of others less fortunate than you. Laws like this are preventing good will and empathy in an already well undersubscribed field.

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Melanie Duval-Smith is an Auckland/Tauranga based freelance writer who specialises in copywriting, social media, corporate commununications, and healthcare. You can contact her at Duval Freelance on 0275744558 or via email - melanieduval-smith@vodafone.co.nz

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