In the distance, a red blaze bobbing along on the side of the road. It’s a cold, miserable day. The miserly warmth that the sun struggles to provide is eaten by the west wind that lashes at the back of anyone unfortunate enough to venture outside of the cocoon of their house or car. As I get closer I can see a familiar figure, bent against the wind, head down and on a mission. Brown polyester trousers, brown Roman Sandals, topped off by a green peaked cap. I’ve met him before. He is a familiar figure on the roads in the area I live in. Sometimes he is just walking other times he is hitching. His features are drawn, no socks on him yet he continues to walk. Red cheeks, blue mose, all his posessions in a brown plastic bag. He is one of our homeless. Most likely he has some form of mental illness, his patch is a circle of about 50 kms. He bums a ride then asks for some change, to set up his day you see, been to see his daughter he says, spent all his money, just enough for some food and maybe a fresh pair of socks.
This day he is walking towards the traffic, no thumb sticking out. Over the summer I have seen him on an old bike, no helmet at all, just cycling along, miles from nowhere. When you ask him where he is going it is the same answer to see my wife. Where do you live I asked him one day, under a hedge, or a tree, what do you do if it rains oh look for a barn or an old building. The only smell is of body odour, no acrid stink of cigarette smoke, nor of alcohol. I don’t recall his name at all however he does have one, I’ll call him John, I think that is pretty close. Whilst it doesn’t matter really it matters immensely, you see John is homeless, not nameless.
In the town where I live John is not the only one. They are not very visible, there is no homeless culture here in our little town of Morrinsville, although I was confronted by a beggar the same day I saw John, just 5.00 sir or 10.00 I have had nothing to eat since yesterday. An uncomfortable feeling as I sat outside a bakery, having a piece of chicken and feeding my dog the bones, I don’t like giving money to streeties, as they call them but I had no time to buy food this day. Twenty dollars assuaged my concern of if you like my guilt. But what can I do, what is my response to John on a cold and wet day? I drove right on past because you see there was nothing I could do for John, or is it nothing I wanted to do?
I have heard all the arguments about the homeless, it is a choice, a lifestyle, there is no need for them to live like that, perhaps for some people that is true but what is our response to the truly vulnerable, the people who live with mental illness, the children, the depressed, oppressed, abused? We daren’t give them names or put a face to them because it is easy to dehumanise, deny any responsibility, turn our backs on the nameless.
Emma-Lita Bourne was not homeless, nor nameless Emma-Lita is the face of collective shame that we should all wear. Although not homeless she doesn’t seem to have been much better off. Emma-Lita is the face of those mendacious looking one down and two up state housing units, they look cold, damp and
cramped and they are. They cast a pall on the landscape and are reminders of poverty and misery. Emma-Lita paid the ultimate price for poor housing, Emma-Lita at two years old died, according to the coroner, one of the huge contributing causes was her damp, mould infested, cold house. Not owned by some greedy private landlord but owned by you and I, the citizens of New Zealand. Take a good look at her face, and a look at the house she lived in, the cold floors, the curtainless windows and imagine it, imagine her life.
As poorly that we protected wee Emma-Lita we also fail to protect the mad and sad of our society who don’t even have a roof over their heads. Shame on us, remember we are the government, we elect them, we have choice, we are not powerless….. to be continued