By Carrie Stoddart-Smith
VIdeo: Homeless By Streets of Laredo
A recent project to gain an insight into the experiences of rough sleeping found that while many homeless individuals considered it their choice to sleep rough, the concept of choice was itself much more complex. Often the circumstances that triggered people onto the streets were such that there was no choice. Rather, there were no other options.
At the beginning of the month, I spent two days at a Matariki wananga for the Homeless. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wondered how many people would show up and didn’t know if their needs would be met. But being part of the wananga provided me with a much needed personal perspective. It reminded me of how comfortable I had become in my educated middle class way of life. The creature comforts I’ve now come to enjoy had all but erased my connection to and memory of growing up with very little, as well as struggling with my identity as a wahine Māori in Te Ao Pākehā.
Upon arrival at the Marae, many appeared visibly anxious and understandably so. But after some kai (food) and korero (discussion), like lifting a veil, the wairua (spirit) of the room changed completely. This moment reinforced for me why being Māori and living by Māori values is so important for addressing the shortcomings of modern society. Tikanga Māori works to bring people together by restoring balance. The simple notion of sharing a meal is the means by which we are reminded that we are equals and we should all value ourselves and others as such.
The process of whakawhanaungatanga brought cheer to people’s faces as they played a board game, joined in on waiata, or simply enjoyed a conversation – as an equal. I watched as people achieved spiritual relief from the Kaumatua and Kuia who were able to help them with their whakapapa and the glow from realising we are all connected. The value of cultural identity. Observing the principle of manaakitanga in action, through the multitude of volunteers who showed generosity and care for our homeless whānau through the provision of food, health services, and haircuts and treating our homeless whānau with the dignity they deserved. As people and not parasites. However, the heart break as each day came to an end and the cold wintry hands of homelessness were waiting to greet our whānau each evening as I prepared to return to my own safe, secure haven is etched very deeply into my mind.
I left wondering how many times have I walked past a homeless person on the street and avoided eye contact so I didn’t have to acknowledge that person’s existence?
Shamefully, I have done this more times than I can count. I am reminded in this moment of the many privileges I possess. More importantly, I’m reminded that identifying as Māori comes with much responsibility – the duty to ensure that I am actively practicing my values and not simply talking about them on a blog. Because in watching those moments of joy on the faces of people I’d cast adrift as faceless and nameless in the past, I was forced to confront my own inhumanity.
Homelessness is complex and will require a cross-sectoral approach that is steered by homeless persons to identify their needs and aspirations. There are people doing great work already with our the homeless, and there are initiatives in place that are giving some hope and providing opportunity to our whānau who find themselves on the street. But please remember, that choice is complex. People are on the streets for a variety of reasons, some of those reasons more horrid than you could possibly imagine.
My plea is simple: next time you see a homeless person on the street, try say Kia ora or Hello. Perhaps try strike up a conversation. Acknowledge their existence in a positive form. Of course not all people will want to speak with you and some may react with a great deal of apprehension. Be mindful, that reaction is a result of being treated like a parasite day in and day out. Your gesture won’t solve homelessness, but a small measure of goodwill may perhaps bring a moment of joy to a person’s day.