Date with Kate on a street corner
A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a stranger. Her name was Kate. Actually, that's not true; I changed her name for this story. I was worried using her real name might get her into trouble.
She had a chicken sandwich and an orange juice from the Bakehouse Café and we shared a Moro bar. We stood outside Timezone and talked.
Kate said, "I've been homeless for a while now." I didn't ask her how long. I didn't ask her a lot of things, which I regret now, because she was nice and I would have liked to know more about her.
I'm not sure how old she was; I would guess her somewhere in her thirties, about my age. Her eyes had shadows under them. She was Maori, her teeth were yellowed from smokes, and she was wearing nondescript, grubby clothing that didn't look warm. It was a chilly day. She didn't have a cardboard sign, like a lot of the homeless people around Hamilton have taken to making. (My wife told me about one she saw today. It said: "Fallen on hard times. Please help.")
I met Kate when she was sitting, huddled, by the corner of Ward and Victoria St. It was the sitting I noticed. I was about to cross the road, and she said, "Can you spare any change?" I waved it off, like a thousand other times. Then I turned around, for some reason, and went to talk to her. I said, "How's it going? Are you all right?"
Kate smiled a little bit and said, "I'm just so hungry."
"I'll get you something," I said. I didn't want to just give her spare change. A paternalistic, sneering voice in the back of my head said, "Because she might buy booze with it."
"What would you like?" I asked.
Kate said that a sandwich would be nice.
We talked on the way to the café. She was from somewhere near Matamata. I asked how long she had been on the streets. Uselessly, I can't remember what she said. It was a while. I didn't ask why she was there. She said she slept during the day, on benches and on the street, because it was safer. At night, she hung out with a group of approximately 20 other people without regular places to go. She didn't sleep much at night - too scary, too unsafe - but their group did have some regular spots. Many were near riverfront buildings, or under bridges.
"The city council guys come along at night, tell us to move on," Kate said.
I asked if there was anywhere she could go. Women's Refuge? Homeless shelters? Friends?
The homeless shelters were all full, she said. The Salvation Army and the foodbanks were overwhelmed. Sometimes she could find a place, but would return to sleeping rough. Kate had seen Housing New Zealand but they told her - not in as many words, of course - to piss off. Her case wasn't urgent enough, or something. She wasn't high in the queue.
"I was so angry," Kate said. "I was livid."
So I bought her a sandwich and an orange juice and split a Moro bar with her and she thanked me. I've never seen gratitude like it. After we talked, I walked home to my nice warm house and I tried not to cry.
I've delayed writing this article for weeks, because there is no way to write publicly about having lunch with a homeless person without it feeling like skiting.
"Look at me, give me a pat on the back" or "look at the nice white man with a job that pays more than enough sitting on his mountain of privilege, showing off how he gave out some cake." I am also worried, shamefully, that my writing will appear overly sentimental or condescending, when I'm sure that this isn't the thing I should be worrying about.
Then there are the people who will be angry at me for giving a homeless person food, that by doing so I'm encouraging them to "hang around", as if they were stray dogs that need impounding, that I'm perpetuating some kind of blight on the Hamilton city centre. I wish I knew a good way of dealing with these angry people. I don't think anything I say will change their minds. But it's always worth a go.
Everyone has a story, and some stories are sad. Those of us who have been lucky to date wave away hard-up people because they remind us that our story could turn sad at any moment. We shouldn't. We are the lucky ones, and we aren't doing enough. The council isn't doing enough. The Government isn't doing enough. We need to tell them this.
I am writing about this because I hope that by doing so I can help in some small way. More than a chicken sandwich and an orange juice and half a Moro bar.