The other morning I was in a stream of commuters leaving a station. A Big Issue vendor was at his usual spot outside, holding up the magazine and greeting people warmly: the perfect salesman. I watched as the crowd moved around him, splitting in two like Moses parting the Red Sea, Cecil B de Mille-style.
I thought how interesting an exercise it might be to stop people 50 metres down the street and ask them politely, of course, why they hadn’t stopped. Had they even noticed the vendor? Were they aware what he was selling? Did they know what The Big Issue is all about? Then it occurred to me there are two simple explanations for this display of mass indifference: firstly, everyone was in the rush-hour/can’t-be-late zone; secondly, and most crucially, people are very good at NOT seeing.
A busker on a corner; a beggar near a tram stop; a raggedy bloke selling his sketches on the pavement; men and women trying to support themselves by selling The Big Issue … people are very good at ignoring them, as if making eye-contact somehow represents a validation of their existence.
So we shouldn’t be shocked that it is possible for a man to die alone and then not be noticed for six months. This is today’s news in Melbourne, though it’s far from an isolated event. The man in question, believed to be in his 40s, and apparently homeless for several years died next to a railway bridge in the inner-city, with one of Melbourne’s busiest roads nearby. His remains were discovered, lying on a mattress, only when officials came looking for graffiti.
It’s desperately sad, of course, but not at all surprising.
The 2001 Australian census found 100,000 people without a home in Victoria, over 20,000 and 14,000 of these in the city. On that same census night Australia-wide there were 99,900. Mass closures of boarding-houses since then, and the squeeze on rental housing make it inevitable that the figures will be even higher when figures from last year’s census are released. All those people with no permanent place to go.
Today’s news will cause discomfort and much hand-wringing. But nothing will change. We’re in our bubbles. Not seeing.