Date: May 03 2012
As Canberra gets colder with winter approaching and concerns about homelessness are pressing it's time to reflect about advantage and disadvantage around us. Canberra is a rich city yet when we open our eyes as we walk through Civic we see the poverty and the disadvantage all around us. We also see the various community efforts to redress marginalisation through self-help, a help-up or a hand-out.
My route between home and work takes me through both new and old Civic, from parts of the regulated environment of the Canberra Centre through Garema Place and City Walk towards Civic West.
The most striking evidence of disadvantage are the clearly long-term homeless, walking around with shopping trolleys full of all that they own or lying on benches in an attempt to keep warm or to pass the time.
The number of people reduced to begging in Civic is also shocking. Some sit hunched over a rough homemade sign with their heads bowed in their hands. Others make personal approaches to likely passers-by or call out for small change to buy a meal.
The numbers of both the homeless and the beggars are difficult to quantify. There are regular faces and some who appear to be newcomers. The numbers may be relatively small but they are real nonetheless. They are people trying to live with their problems and to cope in their own way.
Some may be customers of the various food kitchens that try to meet their needs. The ones I see from time to time are Stasia Dabrowski's soup kitchen in Garema Place every Friday night and the Vinnies Night Patrol at the Ainslie Avenue/ Cooyong St bus stop cum drop-off point near the Canberra Centre entrance. Stasia, Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1996 and ACT Senior Australian of the Year in 1999, has been offering this service since 1979 and is now in her late 80s, while Vinnies has operated the bus in the Canberra region, staffed by 150 volunteers, since 2001.
There are other service providers too and they are often supported by businesses who donate food as well as by the ACT government which provides some funding and the Citizens Advice Bureau that advertises locations through its ''Free Meal Guide''.
Canberra now has many sellers of The Big Issue fortnightly magazine, the social enterprise helping disadvantaged people change their lives, that is now up to 405 issues. It survives with the support of many big donors and partners, including The Body Shop.
Not only is The Big Issue a terrific read full of unique columnists like Mic Looby and Helen Razer, but half of the $5 sale price goes to the vendors. That is its distinctive feature and a perfect example of self-help. Generally the vendors operate from street corners and shopping centre entrances that include some of the coldest, most windswept places in Civic.
Not far from where I usually buy my copy of The Big Issue I see the friendly face of Alan Jessop of the Salvation Army as he sits just inside the Canberra Centre collecting cash donations from passing shoppers. Alan was the ACT Local Hero in the 2011 Australia Day Awards. When the award was made it was noted that Alan had spent 22 years regularly sitting on his stool collecting for poorer Canberrans.
Also just inside the shopping centre is one of the bakeries whose surplus bread is regularly picked up by one of the volunteer groups, like OzHarvest, who redistribute food for charitable purposes.
Another distinguishing feature of Civic is the often-colourful T-shirts of the many charities soliciting for funds on a more professional basis. Occasionally, like Wesley Mission recently, they have a stand inside the Canberra Centre, but more often than not they spread out across a patch in Garema Place. They include NGOs like Action Aid and Amnesty International. Their aim is not to solicit cash donations and they will usually refuse them. Rather they want long-term supporters willing to sign up to monthly commitments through the bank debit system. Presumably this sort of soliciting has a much lower success rate but the long-term benefits are greater. Increasingly this stable income source is what charities are seeking to achieve rather than irregular small change.
This snapshot of the city going about its business reveals the stratification between those who need help and the rest of us, including the various organisations that attempt to bridge the gap. Hundreds of volunteers and companies are involved so Canberra has a heart.
As members of the public we may hurry past, deliberately averting our eyes or thinking about our own problems, just occasionally stopping; sometimes we may even deliberately detour to avoid an admittedly worthy cause that we just can't accommodate.
There is no doubt that the Canberra Centre is a protective cocoon from the real world, despite the presence of the Salvation Army and the occasional stall.
All shopping centres have rules that force much of this activity out on to the streets.
The various ways in which the helpers and those in need operate are instructive. There are different levels of self-help and professionalisation, the immediate and longer term, but the mix seems to suit individual needs.
The human problems are enormous and refuse to go away. We live in a wealthy society where many are marginalised by poverty, mental illness, family breakdown and other causes. Life on the margins is bitterly difficult and never more so than in a Canberra winter.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.
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