Dear America (Part I)

Dear America,

How are you going? You’re doing okay? Alright, mate. I think it’s time we had a bit of a chat.

I’m using the word ‘mate’ deliberately, not just because I’m an Aussie. I think of us as mates. I remember when I was a kid and you got me hooked on Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch – that was great. That’s some quality television right there. I remember saying to my brothers and mum that I couldn’t even notice the accents on Charmed – mind you, I was eight at the time and hadn’t really picked up on what was an accent and what wasn’t. The point being, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for you. You’ve always been there for me with quality creative productions, some pretty progressive ideas, and a very rich – albeit totally flawed – history.

I finally came for a visit to the mainland in May/June 2016, something I was really looking forward to. I was expecting you to welcome me with open arms, which you did, and I thought we were going to have a bloody ripper of a time. We did (to a certain extent). I met a whole heap of your friends that were absolute legends (shout out to Aykut & Jacquie – they were great), I saw some amazing sights, ate some awesome food, and just generally had a good time.

But. I noticed something that wasn’t cool, America. And I say this to you as a mate: you need to sort your shit out.

You’ve got an issue. I noticed something while I was visiting that I think you need to pay attention to; spend some time working on; put some money towards. Please, hear me out. Don’t just dismiss what I say and tell me that your problem is unique and can’t be solved in a similar way to other countries because you’re so big. Just hear an outsider’s perspective.

You’ve got an issue with how your homeless population are treated. I have never experienced anything like it – so many people living on the streets with clear mental health issues. Why aren’t you taking care of them? Why are they treated so poorly? Are you just ignoring this problem and hoping that it’ll solve itself or go away?

My first night I went out on a bar crawl with a group of people from the hostel I was staying at. We can’t do shots in bars where I live, and I don’t go out that much anymore so my alcohol tolerance was quite low. But at the end of the night, even in my haze of drunkenness where I couldn’t quite see straight, I was able to defend a homeless man against two of your other citizens because I knew it was the right thing to do.

Ross and I were walking back to the hostel when I noticed a very cute dog. I was very excited to see it and very distracted by it, but then my ears pricked up when I heard two people speaking with hostility. I looked up and saw two men in their early twenties talking to a homeless man, this dog’s owner, with aggressive body language. I didn’t hear the whole conversation, but I heard one of the young men say, “Go on. Tell me that I’m more intelligent than you. I want to hear you say it.” I looked at the homeless man’s face, and though he was standing tall, I could tell he was feeling threatened. I mean, who wouldn’t when there are two tall, fit, young men aggressively asserting their dominance in front of you? I’ll tell you who: a drunk Australian woman in her mid-twenties who’s seeing a couple of bullies being jerks.

I waited a couple more seconds (that’s a lot of restraint for drunken me) to see if the situation would fizzle out. I don’t even know how many people had walked past without intervening at this point – I mean, the guy was homeless so clearly he wasn’t worth the time, right? When one of the young men took a step towards the homeless guy, asserting that he was more intelligent and he wanted to hear the homeless man say it, I flew in. “Here’s an idea, mate: how about you f*ck off?” They looked at me, dumbfounded. I don’t know exactly why, but I suspect they were confused for a number of reasons: Why is this girl stepping in? Why does she care about a homeless guy? Why are we being yelled at? One of them stepped forward, looking angry and about to say something to me. I cut him off before he had the chance, stepping towards him and telling them, “Go. Just go. Leave.” They left, shuffling off with their eyes to the ground. I turned around and asked if the man was okay. He looked bewildered that someone had stepped in and defended him – especially a female that was much smaller than those two idiots, and said that he was fine. He thanked me, I patted his dog, and I walked off. Ross missed most of it, but he saw the two guys slinking off with a look of shame.

True, I don’t know what happened before I got there. The homeless man may have insulted the two others. My guess (from other incidents I saw during the next week) is that he didn’t intentionally insult them, but they took offence to something he had said or done. The only reason the guy was out there in the first place was to try and get a little kindness from strangers – there’s not a whole lot that homeless people can do. But really, what happened before I got there is beside the point.

Why did these two ‘men’ decide that they needed to belittle someone – who clearly had less than them – to make themselves feel bigger/more important/more intelligent?

Also, why do so many people believe that “it’s their own fault” that homeless people are on the street? There can be any number of factors that contribute to someone being homeless, and that people being “addicted to drugs and alcohol” are a lot lower down on the list than you think.

Green Doors tells me, “on any given night, there are approximately 643,067 people experiencing homelessness in America.” They include people that are in very short-term temporary housing, emergency shelters, or will be losing their nighttime residence (including motels, etc.) within 14 days. The National Alliance to End Homelessness put that figure at around 564,708 in January 2015. That’s a lot of people. Green Doors estimates that around 25% of homeless people have a mental illness and just under one third are families.

That’s a lot of very vulnerable people on the street. You know who should be looking after them? The government. General society. You.

Speaking of the government, a few days later I was witness to police blocking the road, speeding through the streets, and pulling up in front of a 7-Eleven. I then saw them threatening a homeless woman I had seen around for a long time. From what Ross and I could gather, this homeless woman had stolen a bottle of water and some sort of food from the 7-Eleven, and the employee had called the cops. After realising what had happened, one of the police officers decided it wasn’t worth their time. The other officer was very angry. They gave the woman a talking-to and moved her along, then sped off.

Granted, I don’t know what the protocol of 7-Elevens in the US are, but if a vulnerable member of society has taken something as simple as a water bottle and a candy bar, do you call the cops? She’s not threatening. She’s hungry. I will gladly pay for whatever she’s stolen, because she needs the help of the general public.

I am aware that in both of the situations I’ve mentioned, I do not know the full story. I don’t know exactly what was happening, so I could be completely wrong. But while I was in the US I was witness to dozens of small incidents including verbal abuse, outright ignoring, and negative comments towards homeless people.

That is not okay.

So, please, America. Practise more of that kindness that you preach and give the vulnerable – all the vulnerable people, not just the homeless – a bit more of your kindness. I’ll work on the situation over in Australia to the best of my ability, but I can’t do the work in the US for you.

See you in the next couple of years,

Rowena

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