Words by Bishop Tim Norton
Just a few days before this national Homelessness Week began, staff in the St Stephen’s Cathedral precinct in Brisbane’s CBD were invited to a meeting to learn more about those sleeping rough outside their offices. We weren’t sure how many staff would attend so it was a pleasant surprise to see about 100 employees come in during their lunch break to hear from homelessness outreach specialists. We addressed the complex topic that is homelessness – within our lives, within our wider workplaces and within this nation spread so far and wide.
We’ve had an increasing number of people sleeping rough in the Cathedral precinct this year. In our conversations with some, they say that because this is a frequently transited area, they feel relatively safe there. And people passing by are generally friendly.
We gathered just a few days before Australia lost one of its most famous former rough sleepers. Singer Archie Roach, with all his musical talent, had previously opened up about his homeless time. Archie found his way off the streets and into the national consciousness and his death a few days ago was felt by many. Those sleeping rough have stories that are, in many ways, similar to Archie’s.
The homelessness outreach advocates in the Cathedral precinct meeting spoke about how people can find themselves without somewhere to live through relational and financial issues, as well as mental health challenges. Living rough is also a gateway to issues with addictions. It can all happen relatively quickly.
Years ago, a member of my own extended family suffered from some of the above-mentioned issues, and died while homeless. His mother had died when he was very young. Although his father tried his best to raise him, life became very, very difficult for him.
Those who are working in this area tell us that homelessness is complex. It is not as simple as allowing people to sleep rough in designated areas in the long-term because health and safety risks increase over of time. The streets are already a dangerous place. Lack of good nutrition, health issues and possible addictions only add to the loneliness and isolation.
And there is no point in sugar-coating it, as our staff in the precinct sometimes feel uncomfortable or even unsafe when confronted by some behaviours of people who maybe abusing substances. We also have responsibilities to try to provide a safe workplace for our staff. So, how do we approach this topic during Homelessness Week?
We already have professional services that do wonderful things for those sleeping rough. We don’t need to replicate those. However, we may want to join them in their professional endeavours, and do some training with them to know how to engage with people on the street, getting to know their lives and their needs.
Our Christian impulse is to try to help. It is important that we discern how the Spirit is calling us to respond.
I am reminded of a recent comment from an Indigenous elder when we were discussing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ – On care for our common home: “We can’t care for the earth unless we care for the people on the earth”.
Pope Francis has said before that giving something to someone in need “is always right” but he emphasised the need to do that respectfully and with compassion. “Tossing money and not looking into [their] eyes is not a Christian” way of behaving.
This brings us to the words of Matthew 25:35-36: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
These are very clear directives of how we can live our Christian lives.
There was plenty of goodwill in that room in the Cathedral precinct as we all tried to understand the increase in homelessness outside our windows, and the complexity of the factors behind it. After the meeting, I received an email from an employee who appreciated the chance to attend the meeting: “This topic is very dear to my heart. I won’t say any more than that.” This person’s life has clearly been touched in some way by homelessness and/or mental health issues.
Many Australians have their own stories.
This Homelessness Week is an opportunity to think more about how communities can make a difference.