Yesterday a homeless man gave me a lolly.
His name is Matthew and he lives under the Woolloomooloo overpass, near the police station. But we met at the Sydney Town Hall, at Sydney Homeless Connect. Matthew is the first homeless person I’ve had a conversation with beyond a quick and self-conscious, that’s okay, as I slip a $2 coin into the hat, cup or hand that’s offered out for help.
We’d been chatting for a while, Matthew had told me how grateful he was to be given a brand new Street Swags, a beanie and shoes. All would make life that bit more comfortable. He told me about his plans for work and to find housing. He was articulate, funny and proud of his Aboriginal heritage. He gave me the lolly, one of those hard, sherbety, stick to your teeth, bright pink kind, as I had a coughing fit, just as the Opening Speech kicked off. He looked at me with kindness and sympathy as he passed the purple-wrapped lolly, just the way you do when you know the irritation of a persistent cough.
I quickly left the hall to find some water to soothe my scratchy throat and a private moment to blink down the well of tears. It’s a popular saying, ‘I felt humbled’, victorious politicians and actors are particularly fond of it, but yesterday I was humbled. Not because I am fortunate to be educated, housed, warm and well-nourished, but because those who aren’t were so generous with the very little they did have.
If you live in a big city like Sydney, you are aware of the homeless. They’re the beggars you see on street corners, the drunks lying on park benches, they leave their trolleys, loaded up with their possessions in alleyways and other concrete nooks and crannies. they are the unshaved, smelly, drug-addled souls wandering the streets.
Not yesterday. I met people who were collecting books to read at the footpath library. People having their hair cut, straightened, blow-dried or shaved. They were having massages and chiropractic treatment on muscles seized up from sleeping rough. Collecting toiletries packed into paper bags decorated by Infants School children. They were having family photos taken with their children, partners, dogs or just on their own. They chose new clothes, blankets, shoes and beanies.
There were improv acting sessions led by John, who three years ago discovered The Milk Crate Theatre when he was living in a shelter and is now about to have his first play produced at Carriageworks. I listened to The Sydney Street Choir sing whilst others sat down to a lunch of warm lamb casserole.
But there was only so long I could hold back the overwhelming emotion, and the tears finally spilt over watching volunteers and homeless dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Blame it on The Boogie. There was joy, laughter, singing and dancing as a live muso played a rockin’ version and for a few brief minutes the pain, stress and anxiety wasn’t present on faces ravaged by the toughness of their lives.
At 8am yesterday morning, as I walked the block along York St from my bus stop to Sydney Town Hall, it was 9° Celsius. Today it was even colder. Tonight there will be hundreds of people sleeping rough on the streets of our city. And the next time you pass a homeless person, at least give them a smile and think of them dancing to Michael Jackson.