st vincent de paul

POVERTY IS NOT A CRIME

I am heading to Melbourne soon to speak at the launch of the CEO Sleepout organised by Vinnies to help shine awareness on the plight of those living rough. I was really honoured to be asked to do this, as this is an issue close to my heart. I know what it is like to be dirt poor and the flashbacks of the deep sense of shame and humiliation still swamp me and wake me from sleep in a cold sweat, even all these years later.

I woke up today and looked in my refrigerator and like many mornings, it brought a tear to my eye. Not a sad tear like in those dark, lonely, terrifying days as a single mum with three little boys, when I would look desperately into our fridge (that sounded like an emphysemic wildebeest) to find it was bare. Once I had to feed the kids plain ice-ream cones because that was all that was left in the pantry apart from salt and a can of corn. Handout food parcels from the welfare agencies always contained lots of cans of corn. They were big in the donation barrels….for good reason. I got good at dressing them up into dishes, but on their own, I had trouble selling them as little ‘lollies’ to the kids. This morning, I could offer my youngest son and daughter, yogurt and berries, rye bread and grilled cheese and a freshly squeezed pineapple juice each for breakfast. Today’s tear was one of gratitude for making it out of the darkness. I walked the kids to school and reminded them again of just how lucky they are. Most kids take a decent breakfast for granted.

But some don’t.

There are kids everywhere, next door to you, not just in the trailer parks but in the rental houses in your suburb, who are hungry, who walk a certain way to distract from the gaping hole in their school shoe. There’s a look in their eyes. I’ve seen it. I saw it at the bus-stop this morning. And it broke my heart.

Having been there, I know how hard it is to ask for help. The first few times I asked for help from the back office of a church or for credit from the local supermarket for milk and bread,  I was met with that churled lip and raised eye-brow and a quick up and down assessment. Was I a druggie? Mad? Or just a loser? The judgmental attitude that many people adopt when faced with poverty and disadvantage is, I think, a safety shield. They want to pretend that those poor people are ‘different’ from them because if they were the same then the same plight could befall anyone through circumstance. There but for the grace of god go I and all that.  So it’s easier to believe that they choose to live that way, either deliberately or indirectly. That keeps everyone else safe. But the truth is that so many people live week to week, hand to mouth and exist only one disaster away from abject poverty and possible homelessness.

Our Western Society is built on rewarding the rich and demonising the poor. That’s the basic premise of capitalism. If you are an able-bodied, well-educated, mentally fit and finely tuned individual who managed to escape childhood without any form of abuse, neglect, poverty consciousness, physical or emotional set-backs and you have an appearance within the parameters that are judged acceptable by society, you might get yourself a job, have healthy relationships and start building the foundation for a successful life. But if death, divorce, illness, accident or cracks in your family relationships, sexual abuse, depression or sudden job-loss strike unannounced, you can be derailed quickly like a runaway train and then you find yourself hurtling to that tent in the park, begging strangers for loose change to eke out a few crumbs to exist on.

It is haughty and foolish to think that it could never happen to you. And when you do fall that low, it is very, very difficult to pull yourself up out of that deep, deep quagmire. Without help.

I reached out to welfare agencies like St Vincent de Paul in my bleakest days and never once did the volunteers, giving their time and hearts to the cause, ever make me feel like a ‘loser’. The food parcels, the assistance with electricity and phone bills, the friendly conversation and cups of tea, helped me gradually back on my feet.

I’ve written a new book about my years of struggle and hope to publish it in the near future. Hopefully it will serve as inspiration to those still struggling and raise awareness for the need to work as a village to help those less fortunate. We are all in this thing called life together! I am fortunate to be in a position as a writer with something of a platform, to be able to draw people’s attention to this issue. I have come a long way from living in a tent and eating ice-cream cones for breakfast and doling out kernels of corn as treats for the kids. And it was thanks to those who did choose to care and not judge.

When you donate your old toys, clothes and furniture to welfare agencies, you have no idea how much that can mean to someone who finds themselves without decent enough shoes to go to a job interview. And when your kids come home from school with a note around Christmas time asking for donations of cans of food or packets of pasta and whatnot….or toys for disadvantaged kids. Please donate.

When I read about those struggling with Centrelink debts and the stricter measures coming in to make welfare payments more difficult to access, it makes me cry. To see funding being cut from women’s shelters, to see pensioners losing some of their benefits, to see health care becoming more expensive, it all looks wrong. Really wrong. There were times when I couldn’t afford medicine for my children, even with a health care card and for politicians to dismiss the cost of medication as a cup of coffee from a cafe shows just how out of touch they really are. For those in dire need, that amount of money equates to a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, a packet of four bricks of noodles and a cheap packet of water crackers and a few days of eating…..not a strong latte!

No-one chooses to be dirt poor. Sure, bad choices can lead to some dark places but if you agree that it is morally right to sympathise with people dying or suffering from lifestyle diseases, then you must also find sympathy for those who made wrong turns along the way. No one is perfect. When you are in a maze of starvation, illness, terror, particularly if you have children, you can barely see any light ahead, the tunnels are everywhere. It is literally like being in a maze. If you are high above looking down at the maze, it’s easy to see which turns to make to get out, but in the maze, it’s much harder and you inevitably make wrong turns, sometimes many, before you escape. Having someone beside you, holding your hand and shining a torch for you can really help.

Go and donate to Vinnies, the Salvos, Red Cross, Lifeline or any reputable charity. Give warm clothes, sturdy shoes, books, pots and pans, blankets and food (just go easy on the cans of corn, eh?)

Nik x