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If only we got as angry about homelessness

Toby Hall - The Age
August 2016

Criticism of the Prime Minister for donating $5 to a homeless man in Melbourne's CBD last week was ludicrous.

That we have become so cynical, so mistrustful, so ready to believe that behind every politician's public behaviour lies a calculated, unprincipled aim, leaves me despairing.

How have we got to this place? Where we pick over the minutae of our leaders' behaviour - whatever their political colour - searching for any perceived fault to fuel our collective outrage?

If only we got so angry about the issue of homelessness itself.

It was a very human reaction: the PM reached out to another person, clearly down-on-his-luck, with a small gift.

Well, from the response of critics and commentators, you'd have thought the PM had kicked the man.

There were those who criticised the PM for not donating more, given his personal wealth.

Then there were those who attacked him saying that the money would surely be used for drugs or alcohol and was therefore entrenching the man in poverty.

In terms of the former, by all means criticise the federal government's response to homelessness - the inadequacy of Commonwealth funding, the failure to produce an overall national homeless strategy - but to disparage the Prime Minister's individual generosity, or his personal commitment to the cause of homelessness, I think is deeply unfair.

It's estimated that the Prime Minister gives around $500,000 to charity every year.

His long-term support for Sydney's Wayside Chapel - one of Kings Cross's most crucial agencies for homeless and other vulnerable people - is well known.

As for the issue of donating money directly to homeless people? I have to say, I'm at odds with the majority opinion of Melbourne's Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, and other homeless service providers, such as the Salvation Army.

The Lord Mayor advises Melburnians not to give money to beggars.

"Just know that that money is going to end up feeding a drug habit. And so if you give money to beggars you are not helping them out of homelessness, you are entrenching them in it," Mr Doyle said.

This is a difficult subject.

For eight years, I headed up one of Australia's largest homeless organisations - Mission Australia.

The question of whether to give money to roughsleepers was a perennial one.

I always felt deeply uncomfortable criticising anyone for a gesture of kindness to a fellow human being, in this case, giving money to a person in need. On this subject, I always said, "Do what's in your heart."

We should never condemn generosity.

Neither the Mayor, nor anyone else, knows this man's story.

At a time when Melbourne's homeless situation is out of control. When the authorities and their strategies are clearly failing, it's a bit rich to jump down a person's throat when, face-to-face with shocking poverty, they are moved to do something immediate and human.

It's also not as simple as saying "all homeless people will use your money for drugs".

At St Vincent's Hospital our Emergency Department is arguably 'ground zero' when it comes to the health of Melbourne's homeless.

Yes, many roughsleepers we see have drug and alcohol issues. But almost all struggle with a range of other crippling health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and other serious mental illnesses, diabetes, asthma, liver and heart disease.

Getting someone to give $5 to a charity instead of putting it in homeless person's hand isn't going to change that picture.

The real issue here is the need for root and branch reform of our homeless system and the fact that those who do the work are starved of funds by governments at all levels.

The answer to tackling chronic homelessness has long been known: provide people with immediate access to accommodation and then support them with the services they need once they're housed. But apart from individual projects here and there, no government is doing what's required at the scale it's needed.

That's what we should be getting angry about.