No one is an innocent bystander to the homeless

Walk along Collins Street any day of the working week and midway between Southern Cross Station and the Paris End, you might see a young man sitting on the footpath playing guitar. He resides at roughly the same spot each day  – near the studied elegance of the Block Arcade and the pedestrian crossing lights.  

When he sings, I'd like to be able to say, he causes angels to cry. But here far below the heavens, down among the bustledom that passes on this city footpath, the reality is different. He cannot sing, though he tries. He mumbles melody. The songs in his head are unrecognisable. This is a public performance that is outside critique. But then, neither should it be judged, for this is his life.

'The homeless have not vote, no sway with politicians, but they deserve society's support.'
'The homeless have not vote, no sway with politicians, but they deserve society's support.' 

He never looks up, the begging busker. His left hand makes a fist of forming a few chords while his right thumb stabs away at a halting rhythm. Some days the guitar is in tune, other days not. A few coins, mostly silver, sit awkwardly, forlornly, on his floppy guitar case. A cardboard sign says that he has epilepsy and cerebral palsy and that he needs money for food and board.  It's his profile to strangers, the busking beggar. LinkedIn or Facebook it is not. Brevity needs to be the soul of those who do not fit.  

The passersby have no time to stop. 

Brevity needs to be the soul of those who do not fit.
Brevity needs to be the soul of those who do not fit.  Photo: Tanya Lake

The homeless have plenty. It is the one commodity that, costing nothing, they can own.  

Nationally, about 105,000 people are homeless. In Victoria on any given night, more than 22,000 people are classified as homeless. Many sleep rough, that is without access to emergency accommodation. Many do find, or have, somewhere to stay, thanks in large part to the network of government and volunteer support. Perhaps though a campaign, along the lines of that in trying to reduce the road toll, could be examined. Tackle homelessness. Make it zero. 


A measure of a society's health is not the number of skyscrapers rising into the clouds. It is the commitment it makes to the welfare of all members of that society.  Relatively speaking, we tend to the less fortunate better than most other countries. 

Some countries murder through starvation or imprisonment parts of their own population. Step forward, North Korea. Last week, it exploded what it said was a hydrogen bomb, the "H-bomb of justice". How deranged is that?

As to the past, there are far too many to list, but one will do: the Soviet Union. Stalin made a permanent home of the gulag or the grave for millions.

You will come anyway – so why not now?

I wait for you; things have become too hard.

I have turned out the lights and opened the door

For you, so simple and so wonderful. 

Assume whatever shape you wish.

Requiem, Anna Akhmatova​

The Russian poet was speaking to death, the constant companion of the Soviet terror years. It is, of course, self-evidently, a time and a galaxy from the streets of Melbourne. But within those two extremes flickers a universal desire: home.

Home is both a metaphorical construct and a physical construction. It is the haven for the body and soul. Some people find it on the highway, comfortable in the constant moving, the shifting of environment, others in a solid house, behind a solid fence in a solid neighbourhood. Pliny the Elder wrote 2000 years ago that home was where the heart was. For the fortunate, this is so. 

But a city footpath is not a home, under a bridge is not a home. The best that can be said is that these places are transit stops. But if they are all that a person can see, all they can hope for, then we as a society have failed them.

This is not a matter of condemnation or judgment. It may be nobody's fault but their own that a person has arrived at this point, but does that then label them as the accursed, the societal lepers among us? Laissez-faire does not extend to withholding kindness. And surely, the cost of kindness is nothing, and the benefits of kindness are immeasurable. The degrees of separation between the passerby and the passed are not as great as one might suppose. 

Every year, the opposing tribes of politics get themselves into a lather of self-righteousness and indignation over the budget and the economy. We can accommodate money for that most indispensable of things, the billion-dollar submarine, for instance. And we'll throw a couple of bucks to the pensioner. It would be nice, just once, to hear this: As leader of this country, I have decided to throw out one sub and redirect the money to services for the homeless. What a courageous decision, prime minister, that would be.  

But then the homeless, by reason of their circumstances, are not on the electoral roll. If they are not on the roll, they cannot vote. If they cannot vote, who in politics wants to know them? They cannot deliver power.

The young man with his guitar on Collins Street certainly has no sway over such events. He may not be able to sing, though he tries. But he has still has a voice to sing with. As do we have a voice to say to each other: be kind.