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Hiding Homelessness from Ourselves

Our generosity exists on a spectrum. And so do the stages - and faces - of homelessness. Confronted by the hardened eyes of a seated stranger begging outside a supermarket, we tend to look the other way or offer an apologetic smile. It's too hard to bear. There are so many reasons not to give. Just as ignoring our bank balance does nothing to alleviate our financial anxiety, we spend so much time avoiding the thought of charity - but having a 'game-plan' can help us to help others.


There are good reasons why we don't give easily. Upon retrospect you might think of an honest answer. But does our tendency to always have an answer excuse us from almost never being charitable, no matter our circumstance? Research into empathetic behaviour shows that with reminders, and cues of being mindful of others, even the most stingy person will choose to care for someone in need.


Unfortunately, our empathetic behaviour is consistently tied to a perception of material wealth. That seated stranger outside the supermarket, what did they look like? What degree of desperation, or age, or skin colour does it take to help them? A few studies have shown that the higher your own perceived social status, the more likely you are to partake in unethical or antisocial behaviour. Researchers found that the higher status your car appears to be, the less likely you are to stop for pedestrians (image left from https://www.pnas.org/content/109/11/4086.short). Next time you climb into an expensive car or dress particularly fly for an event, don't stop enjoying the moment but don't let it go to your head at the expense of someone else!


Another worrying trap we fall into is the bystander effect. In the presence of other people we are far less likely to intervene in an emergency or to help someone than if we were witnessing the emergency alone. Sadly, this effect has allowed many people to suffer, or even die, when an intervention like calling an ambulance, from just one person watching, could have saved them.


Cognitive dissonance. As empathetic humans it seems logical to think that witnessing more suffering should make us more empathetic. The opposite is true. To cope with increasingly terrible things we unconsciously distance ourselves. That is why Unicef appeals show just one child to pull at your heart strings. Add another child and our heart strings recoil. Don't blame yourself. Looking into the eyes of someone less fortunate than yourself can feel like the weight of all those who cannot be helped. At least for the sake of alleviating that anxiety bubbling beneath the surface we need to make ourselves aware of why we choose the responses we do.


Our own financial insecurity. Australia is a lucky country. But, gradients of wealth and poverty are relative. Poverty does not have to look like extreme desperation and skeletal starvation to be considered poverty. It may come as a surprise that some estimates of financial security report almost 50% of Australians live pay-check to pay-check. Many of us can account for this in lifestyle choices, wishing to live well week to week rather than save. Never before have we had such an abundance of choice, compelling advertising, and the social pressure of everyone we know at our fingertips. Whether or not our modern frivolous spending is a choice is debatable; think millennials buying too many avocados so they cannot afford a house. At the scary end of insecurity, many more people can't shoulder even one unforeseen financial burden. With the rising cost of food, rent, and school fees, all it takes is one hiccup to slip from eating avocados to seeking emergency help. Spare change might feel equally unavailable at both ends of the pay-check to pay-check spectrum.



Our reasons for ignoring injustice are as varied as the people who need some extra help. As passersby, we should not ask why they need help or whether they will fully appreciate it - they are a person and in this moment they need empathy, patience, and hope. Without a conscious effort on the part of individuals there are few mechanisms of society that provide these things in time. Knowing why we don't give money or help people who appear to need it is important. We have to be aware of the unconscious reasons for inaction or behaviours towards strangers who we would never treat the same way if they were our friends or family - or appear wealthy enough to notice. Just because a person sleeps under a roof doesn't mean that place is safe or that they are not in poverty. They may just need our help and we need to be ready to offer it.


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