The thought of the kind of just society that we are living in prompted me to consider whether the view of our society is fair and equitable to people who are good, law abiding and are generous yet they cannot fully participate in economic activities because of their marginalization. I also wanted to find out if homelessness according to its victims was just about the lack of shelter, whether there were other deeper aspects associated with the lack of shelter.
I decided to have two different views of homelessness in Melbourne and therefore chose to interview a homeless person and a professional whose job is to take care of homeless people. I identified the Sacred Heart Mission located on Grey Street, St Kilda as an institution that would be having a professional person taking care of the homeless. My posit was right and indeed, Sacred Heart Mission offered services to the homeless in form of free meals during midday from noon to 1.30pm and had an emergency relief every day of the week in addition to a special Christmas dinner for the homeless to make them feel as part of the society.
I found out about the specific offerings of the institution after interviewing Mrs Alison who serves meals at the institution and is a cook at the same institution. I conducted the interview on a Wednesday afternoon; I walked into the institution and asked to see the appropriate office in charge of the daily operations. I was directed to the head nun whom I informed of my case and asked to be assigned one of the employees at the mission who was free and would provide a perspective of the institutional services to their target members of the community, the homeless. I was directed to Mrs Alison after she was found to be free for the afternoon. I introduced myself to her and proceeded to ask her about the services they offer at the mission and what she thought were their relevancy to the community. I asked Alison if she would do what she did for free if she had another income source and she replied, “I already do much work here as a volunteer, am only paid for six hours a day yet I spend the whole day taking care of the kitchen and the meal preparation”.
Mrs Alison was cooperative after I assured her that I would not delve into personal matters other than her opinions towards the matter of the interview. My homeless victim was Mr Jamal whom I met as I left Sacred Heart Mission that evening. I found out of his homeless status after he approached me asking for money to buy dinner and medication. I used the opportunity to inquire about his condition and learnt that he had been homeless for a year and a half. He had been sacked, thus he could not find another job. I told Jamal about my intention to find out the nature of our society’s care to the homeless and asked his permission to engage him further about his condition. He agreed to my request after I offered to conduct the interview in a nearby café as we had dinner. He was very open with his answers and even proceeded to narrate his life experiences as a homeless person, how he felt that the society was immoral because it denied him a chance to participate yet he was capable. Jamal said, “If one could just employ me with a decent salary, I would work diligently and never return to the street, this place if hell”.
According to a survey done in 2004, there are approximately 4000 people in Melbourne lacking a physical home (Crisis Help Network: Melbourne Homeless Services n.d.). The uneventful circumstance of being homeless is not because of one’s liking; rather people find themselves in circumstances that render them unable to provide shelter for themselves by engaging in a meaningful economic activity such as a job (Twentyman 2000).
From the interview with Jamal, I found out that the homeless people in Melbourne consist of both young and old members of the society and of all those he had interacted with, none wished to stay homeless a day longer. I gathered information about the demographics of the homeless people by asking Jamal about his friends if he had any and about the people whom he interacts with on a daily basis. Jamal informed me that he was born in Australia, however some of his friends came from other countries and their lack of citizenship by birth was their main cause of marginalization when it comes to employment.
I also asked Alison, of the characteristics of the people, she serves food for in the institution and she replied that most of them appeared aged even though their manner of behaviour suggested that they were younger. In addition, there were significantly more men who the thronged the institution during midday meal times. She indicated that not all the people seeking free meals had no shelter. Some of the people in need of free meals were actually sharing a shelter with their friends or in shelter homes around the city. In most cases, as Alison found out through her interaction with the homeless, the sheltered homeless people stay at their current residence for less than a month before seeking alternative hosts. For the young people, all had been away from home for more than two months.
Being homeless has a negative impact on an individual’s educational prospects given the fact that one has to worry more about shelter forcing them to be nomadic as they exhaust the generosity of their hosts (Levinson & N 2004). Jamal indicated that he has no income to sustain him when I inquired further about his other sources of money other than begging, he opened up and said that some of his homeless friends peddled drugs in alleys as a way to sustain their livelihood and on good days they were more than happy to share their proceeds with him. Out of the interview, I noted that Jamal had a strong observance of his religious faith and believed that his predicaments would end soon. From his life story narration, Jamal kept on referring to his condition as the fate of God and that if God willed it he would be out of the street the next day. This revelation prompted me to ask him whether he attends any religious service to which he replied that were it not for his torn and dirty clothes, he would gladly attend such services. According to him, his uncleanliness was a reason preventing him from praising his God appropriately.
It was an eye-opening encounter with a homeless person, and I realized that the homeless people viewed their bad situation as an ill in the society that they could not attribute to a single individual or group. Jamal adamantly refused to answer my question on the reason for his job dismissal. He told me that there were some private matters he would not share with anybody and the job dismissal issue was one of them. Earlier I had inquired form Alison whether she had any idea of why the homeless people were unable to find jobs. She informed me that most of them were too ashamed of their past to discuss and therefore she never asked them about it.
I was able to get answers from my interviewees by framing my questions as if I was the one contemplating the scenario. For example, I would ask how someone like me would end up in the street with no job and no chance of getting another job. From this hint, my interviewees would start discussing their experiences. In the case of Alison, she started referring me to cases she had witnessed in the institution while Jamal would talk about his life or that of his friends as he had witnessed in the streets and shelter homes. I would then gather the necessary facts from their narration and arrange coherently mentally to build facts for my story.
After my introduction to Alison, I asked her whether she was satisfied with my introduction and if it was appropriate that I ask him about her experience with the homeless people. Before referring to the homeless people, I inquired if there were other terms that would be appropriate in the case that homeless people appeared derogative to her. She replied that it was okay to refer to them as homeless. In order to have her full consent, I explained that the interview would not be in any way be used for commercial purpose and she wished, I could leave out her name as I later wrote my story. Alison replied that she had no qualms with a commercial story and the use of her real name. Moreover, she indicated that what she does was for the public good and it was important that many as many people as possible found out about the true details of her institution’s work for the homeless.
The meeting with Jamal was a coincidence and I used the opportunity to conduct the interview. However, before proceeding to buy Jamal dinner, I informed him that the dinner was in no way a bribe in return for his story. I informed him that if he were not ready for the interview, then I would gladly leave him alone and look for him later as agreed or seek another homeless person to interview. I also told Jamal that agreeing onto the interview would be one way of letting out the story of the homeless be heard by other people and it may lead to positive outcomes on their part. I informed both my interviewees that they story I was going to write would be about their perception of the situation of being homeless and their action towards it. I added that the story would form my opinion of whether the society was just in its treatment of the homeless. Jamal agreed unconditionally to my depiction of his perceptions in my story; however, Alison informed me that I should only interpreted what she says as a professional and not includes her personal sentiments. I order to separate her personal sentiments and professional opinion; I periodically sought a clarification on the matter as soon as she ended her narrations in answering my questions.
My interviews were a mixture of on the record and off the record questions that I used to formulate the context of my opinion concerning homeless people. In this story I have portrayed my interviewees as they appeared to me, I have left out the personal details of Alison because she asked me to, furthermore Jamal is not the real name of my second interviewee. I have used a fictitious name because of the need to protect his privacy because of some of his off the record responses during my interview (Kimmel 1988).