Perhaps this is a strange topic to write about but it is something that I find really, really confronting. A few occurrences happened tonight and my mind just can't get over it, I don't really know what to do about it.Today, I was catching up with two of my favourite teachers from my high school, also joined by one of my best friends (I'll just call her B for ease of reference haha). The four of us were getting teas at this cafe near Town Hall Station, so that we could have a nice place to talk and catch up.
A little bit into it, a (I assume this, but I could be wrong) homeless man came up to our table and asked us for spare change. One of my teachers said "Yeah actually" and pulled out her wallet to give a coin. To be honest, I was kind of surprised. I guess because people approach you for money often enough that over time my default response has been to not give money. On a few occasions I have but it genuinely is not consistent.
Then, later on, we were approached again for money. This time, the man came almost directly up to me and asked the group for money. He had this half-distant voice as if he was not fully FULLY there, but also half-insistent at the same time. I felt so caught. I knew everyone was watching and I just had no idea what to do. I sort of mumbled "Sorry no..." and he'd just reply "just a little change" and I'd mumble "no sorry" again and then he'd say again "com'mon just some change" and this went on a few times.
Eventually after this whole exchange of me just being helpless and him insisting, he went away. But I just felt so deeply confronted and strange and unsure of what to do. Another thing I never am sure how to feel about is how conversation after this should be. I have nothing against conversation resuming following occurrences like this, but I just personally never know how to deal. Like do we talk about what happened or how does everyone else feel about this?
I just don't know.
It sort of rested from my mind after that, when B and I went on to have dinner together. But I think the thing about Sydney is that you never really fully forget about it. Because the signs of it is everywhere. I'm not sure if it's just me but I always just see the signs of where someone sleeps for the night - a blanket or mat or a little huddle of items stowed in some corner. Or just a figure lying in some discreet corner. I know I'm not the only one who notices but it just feels like there is a lot of homelessness in Sydney.
After, we decided to share a bubble milk tea, something which we'd been saving to have together for a while, just as a little joke between us. We sat in a courtyard near Town Hall Station, underneath the overhang of a building since it'd been raining and all the benches were soaked. There were a few people dotted here and there in little glows of light, and some places had this strong stench of urine. I honestly felt it was the kind of an area where homeless people would be.
Perhaps you'll think that I am some privileged, pretentious, snobby kid, saying all these things which could be seen as demeaning or rude or politically incorrect. But I don't know, I just want to share my honest thoughts. And yeah, if you think they are wrong then I am fully open to being challenged. That's part of the reason I'm writing this post, to first get my thoughts out, next to try see any different perspectives out there and lastly because... I just feel helpless about what to do.
While we were sitting there, it was okay enough because the average person was still walking by here and there. But if it had been any later or more empty, I would've felt a little more insecure. Sometime into it, this scruffy looking guy smoking came up to us. He started by asking if we were from Sydney and we were uncertain about all this, but said yes. He then explained how he was from Coffs Harbour and someone had stolen his bag and he needed money to get a bus home, asking us for money. This is a weird thing but the moment he SAT DOWN with us, I felt so so weird. Like maybe it's just me but when someone SITS DOWN with you, it just gives me this overwhelming feeling that this person is forcing themselves on you, like it's not just a quick situation they are here to stay for a while.
I just felt so, so confronted and uncomfortable.
My friend and I made a side glance at each other. I think if you've been in this sort of situation you must know the look. A look that says "Man this doesn't feel so good, what should we do?" She came out with the question "How much does your bus ticket cost?"
He said $47 to Coffs Harbour and he had $18. He was saying he could give us change if we had a note to give him. He was saying that he was coming back to Sydney on Friday and could give us money back then.
The thing with situations like these is that the story could be true, or the story couldn't be. But to be really honest, I don't really care about the story. Perhaps I've grown into some callous, privileged city-dweller. But I think just what matters for me is if I get a trustworthy vibe from the person or not. And I just didn't have a good feeling about this guy - the way he came up to us, the way he smelt, the way he pressed us, just the way he was. Perhaps I'm too quick to judge, perhaps it's wrong of me to use cues like this. But mostly I've learned to trust my sense of character and the overwhelming feeling I got from him was uncomfortable.
So I just decided to tell him. I just said "I'm really sorry about this but I just don't feel really comfortable in this situation. I feel very confronted and prefer not to, I'm sorry."
And you know what. I looked into his eyes when I said that. And for a moment I got scared that he would hit me.
He responded "You don't have anything? A note? I can give you change." and I just said "I prefer not to" because I honestly did not want to give this guy $30. But he went on with "You don't have anything? I really want to get home."
There was this pause and then B and I were both sort of resigned, we got out all our coins from our wallet and gave it to him, probably a total of about $6 or $7. He looked at them silently and started counting them one by one in front of us. Then he looked up and said "You don't have any notes? You don't have any more?"
My friend was saying "No sorry I don't, I also need some coins for my bus ride home" and I knew that wasn't true but I think we both just felt like we wanted this situation to end as fast as possible. It felt like he was intensely scrutinising us, knowing we had more, pushing for more. And yeah the truth is that I did have notes sitting in my wallet. But I chose not to say anything. I know sometimes it's better just to say that you have nothing left to get through the situation but I just... no.
Now I look back on this, I feel a small upset at him. Now I reflect back, I think he must've known that if he kept pressing we might give in more. Because the initial pressing had worked. I've never had to beg before so I probably speak in a clueless, unforgiving way. But if I analyse the theory of it and I was - say - a 'pro-begger', I guess if you sussed out people who were kind of not-shutting-you-down, you know you could probably keep pushing them and end up getting something.
But it's sort of pushing people into a place so uncomfortable that they feel they need to give you money or pushing people into a place where they would lie to get rid of you. To me... I don't know. I just don't know.
After a little bit more, he left. We walked back to the station to head home. On the way, we saw this guy bent over a fountain, trying to get money from the bottom. When he was done and walked away, this other homeless guy holding a couple bags, a portable mattress thing and with a dog started yelling at him. "Fuckin if I see you in there fucking again, I'll kill you. That's for the fuckin kids", threatening at the guy. Their yells echoed along the way as we walked towards B's bus stop.
As I walked through the empty underground toward the train station platforms, I admit I felt scared. Scared or wary or maybe both. I just felt so wary of being approached again, or possibly even cornered, I have no idea. I just got this feeling that I didn't like being in the city anymore. And then I felt a bit strange. Like did I want to escape to some place where all this didn't exist? Was this all a product of the society we were in, no one to blame except the system? Is there no right or wrong in situations like these? Is it anyone's fault?
I think a common thought that is easy to have is that it is their fault for being homeless. Because in places like Australia or the Netherlands, you are fully able to get social welfare from the government. And it's their choice not to get it and to instead beg for money. But at the same time, I know that social welfare comes with conditions and it's definitely not free money, you are under the restrictions of the government. So I can get why people choose not to. But I know I will never fully understand unless perhaps it happens to me one day, or someone I know or something just happens for me to understand.
I'm really sorry if I might say something offensive or rude in this post but I really tried to state things how they were or exactly how I felt them. I just wanted to be honest about a topic that I think most people don't really want to talk about, and even I don't talk about or fully understand and am utterly at a lost about.
For now, I guess my choice thus far has been to take it on an individual basis even though for the most part, I am cautious of people giving people money who come up and ask for it. I feel like just as they have a complete choice whether they ask me for money or not, I have a choice to give or not. And maybe that's a privileged non-understanding thing to say. Some might say "Do they have a choice?", "They must really need it if they're asking." But I just don't know... I really don't know.
And I think that just sums up how I feel about all of this.
I just don't know.