Not walking away


By Warwick McFadyen

I walked by.

It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the human in the bag. I had seen his matted hair, a bit of a hand and the back of the neck. It wasn’t the first human in a bag I had seen that morning in the middle of the city; sorry, in the middle of the most liveable city in the world.

Welcome to Melbourne, where you can live on the streets, just like any other city in the world. But these streets are more liveable. The lucky country that’s us. No cultural cringe here. The bodies in the bags, or under blankets, or hunched over and under rags were the evidence to that.

I walked by. I wasn’t alone. Everyone walked by. Not just by this person, but all the other men and women, too. Can you judge people? After all, that is not their life in the bag. Why engage with a stranger? And a down-and-out one, presumably, at that. A few more steps and the body in the bag will be out of sight and, if not out of mind, then put to the margins of the day’s experiences, if at all archived in the memory.

Besides, the homeless in the doorways harm no one (except shopkeepers who complain it’s a bad look for business if a person sleeps in theirs).

Nationally, about 105,000 people are homeless. In Melbourne close to 250 people, on recent counts, sleep rough each night, a rise of 74 percent in two years.

It’s not that as a society we do not care. Many agencies provide help, but the rising of the tide in numbers can drown efforts and, worryingly, for the health of a society it can turn the walkers-by sympathy into resentment and indifference.

Salvation Army chief Brendan Nottle says homelessness is in crisis; Mayor Robert Doyle is scared by the numbers because, as he told The Age “behind those 247 rough sleepers are tens of thousands of people in housing distress”.

It is probable the numbers are far greater, given that a count cannot possibly cover every area. When the homeless establish camps, as occurred in the city square or at Enterprise Park near Melbourne Aquarium, then indeed there is a crisis. The state government has announced a series of measures to tackle the issue., as has the city council allocated money.

The gap between the two worlds of walkers and rough sleepers is accentuated at this time of year. Peace on Earth, goodwill to all. These are not hymns to the silence of the dead footpath at midnight. How many shopping days to Christmas? Rough sleepers don’t shop till they drop. Rough sleepers don’t shop. They drop where they can find a safe spot. Charities and people of goodwill try to bring into these lives for a day the spirit of Christmas.

And on the lead-up to this day, among the bustle and hubbub of a city alive to song and celebration, I walked by.

But then, a few paces on I stopped, turned around and went back – though keeping a respectful distance. But why? It seems absurd to argue that I didn’t want to invade his privacy, that I wanted to keep a respectful distance. He was asleep. I didn’t want to disturb him. Perhaps that was it. Some might say the homeless have jettisoned the consideration of respectful distance and privacy by merely being there. Some have no idea.

This man was one of the city’s many homeless residents, asleep on the footpath in the CBD in the week before Christmas. He was just centimetres from the gutter. But, here on the footpath, was still a man.

Last January I wrote a column in The Age about the homeless, beginning with a man who used to play guitar and sing in Collins Street. He had a few coins before him. It was really existential crowd funding. The full column is here: I wrote that in essence if nothing else can be afforded then surely there is still kindness. It costs nothing.

To the man in the bag, I stopped and took the photograph that is at the top of this piece. It captures evidence of a life. When I returned an hour later, he was sitting up, shaking loose the rough sleep. It occurred to me then that the hardest battle of walking by is the giving in to indifference. For it means that you are not walking by, you are walking away.

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance editor and writer

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