Opinion

Forced removal of homeless shames Melbourne

Homeless people need to be treated with greater compassion, argues Revd Dr Hugh Kempster

March 7 2017Homeless people are God’s children who can often tell powerful stories of misfortune and resilience, writes the Revd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter’s Eastern Hill which is home to the Lazarus Centre for the homeless.

February 2017 was not a good month for rough-sleepers in Melbourne. Police forcibly removed around 20 homeless people from outside Flinders Street station on the first day of the month. A week later the Council controversially voted, five to four, in favour of an amendment to the City of Melbourne Activities Local Law 2009 which now makes it easier to force homeless people off the streets: “unless in accordance with a permit, a person must not camp in or on any public place.” The Council also inserted a new provision, which allows for the belongings of homeless people to be confiscated and impounded and then sold, destroyed or given away unless a fee is paid within 14 days.

A woman I know, who has been living peaceably for months on the street outside our local corner store, was in tears when she heard the news. “Me and my dog live on the street because of domestic violence,” sobbed. “This is the safest place for me. Where can I go? The boarding houses are dangerous places. I know people who have been murdered there. And I can’t take my dog. I couldn’t live without him!”

Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, points to our Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, where there is a vigorous repudiation of poverty. “Poverty” he writes, “is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God” (A Theology of Liberation, p. 165). Forcibly evicting people from their home on the street lacks compassion and does nothing to address the root causes of poverty. The issues are complex, but the risk in the toughened stance of Police and Council is that homeless people will be further marginalised, and effectively criminalised for sleeping rough.

Some of the language that is being used in the public debate is deeply disturbing. A week before the Flinder’s Street eviction, an editorial in the Herald Sun read: “Surely, with the filth, intimidation and hygiene risks… there is enough to meet criteria for police to move in and move these vagrants on.” These people are not “filthy vagrants”! They are beautiful, vulnerable, troubled, strong people who just happen to be travelling a different path to many of us.

Here at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, working in partnership with Anglicare, these homeless people are our friends. They sleep in the church grounds because there is nowhere else to go. We invite them for breakfast every day of the year. We introduce them to social workers and health professionals who can help. We teach some of them to make coffee, which offers a little purpose, and may open up an employment pathway. These people have names. They have families and friends. They tell us tragic stories of misfortune and powerful stories of resilience, if we make the time to listen. They are God’s children. They are St Peter’s parishioners as much as anyone else.

Archbishop Philip told a delightful story at the Senior Staff meeting of the Diocese last year. He was in full clericals, walking along Bourke Street, with the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia. A slightly dishevelled man, who he presumed to be homeless, approached them and asked, “are you Catholic?” “No” the Archbishop replied, “I’m Anglican.” A big grin emerged on the man’s face. “So am I” he said, “I go to St Peter’s.”

We might feel powerless to address the problem of homelessness; but we are not. A good definition of compassion is “empathy in action.” We can all build empathy. We can choose to habitually stop and talk to Lazarus-at-the-gate: the person selling The Big Issue, the woman with her “please help” sign, the man who accosts you in the street asking for money. We can find out more about homelessness and look creatively at ways to pitch in. A phrase that Martin Luther may or may not have coined, is nonetheless worth quoting: “We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” The Scriptures are clear on this one: our salvation is tied up in theirs.

“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (Is. 58:10).