We have professional homeless people in Christchurch these days. They set up pitches outside shops and malls and ply their trade with small cardboard signs atop hats or ice cream containers. They are usually men, frequently Maori, and usually, it appears, in cahoots. Men on the streets! Getting cash donations just for sitting there! People are outraged.
I’m not. These men are only doing what a neoliberal society has been telling them to for a long time now. They are monetising their situation. They are leveraging off their misfortune. They are taking something they are good at – living rough, looking rough, being addicts, being mentally ill perhaps – and turning it into a job. Really, we should be pleased. We should congratulate them on their entrepreneurial initiative. If I were Mike Hassall I would be negotiating rights with Bravo for a reality show called The Real Homeless Men of Christchurch, which is the obvious next step.
But but but, he’s on a benefit, you say? So are a lot of working people, who need and get top-ups for accommodation, childcare and other necessities of life. But but but, he’s not paying tax on all the money people give him! Neither is Google. Neither are some people with offshore trusts. Neither are tradespeople who do cashies for pals. LOTS of people avoid paying tax. LOTS of people resent paying tax. LOTS of people who resent paying tax comment on articles like the one I’ve linked to, expressing their fury that grubby men on the dole drink alcohol and take synthetic highs while taking additional coins from the public. Chances are these Furies, or their bosses, drink alcohol and take synthetic highs – or organic ones – on the weekends. Highs that they buy with the money they earn with the sweat of their brows. Just like these guys.
Begging is not an easy game. Begging is a performance. Begging is sitting on a hard footpath for hours, in burning sun or freezing rain, looking needy. Begging is watching people avoid your eyes. Or pity you, or judge you. Begging is knowing someone more criminal than you may do you over and take your day’s earnings. Begging is having conversations with people who want to know why you’re not at work and whether or not you spend all your money on booze and smokes. Begging is laying it out on the line: I am a useless waste of space. What will you do to change that? To make me go away? To make yourself feel better?
Of course some of them are going to be dodgy. There are dodgy people in every profession. But I think we all know that most of them are just plain inadequate. They are life’s losers. They’re not very good at toeing the line. They have been dealt a bad hand with a few cards missing and they’re just doing what they can – perhaps all they can.
I like to think that once, we were a more compassionate society. I’m probably wrong. But back then the rights of the individual fell below the needs of the many and the callous disregard I see for these men’s wellbeing and fury at their visibility seems to reflect a society that now celebrates success for the individual at any cost. That means minimal controls. We want freedom to do whatever we want. To dress how we want, say what we want, buy what we want, see what we want. If a non-regulation haircut, say, or a spot of accidental racism are no big deal, then nor is a bunch of untidy fellows parking up outside Ballantynes with a dog and a kitten. They are exercising their rights to do what they want in their pursuit of happiness and a living. They are poverty entrepreneurs seeking angel investment. If they are offending or frightening Ballantynes’ customers, well, maybe the customers just need to be less sensitive. Right?
Meanwhile so many of us continue to say no to welfare, except maybe a little bit for the deserving, saintly poor who don’t smoke or drink or have kittens and dogs to feed. We say no to tax, and no to beggars in our back yard. We want all the coins. Actually we need all the coins, because there are few protections left for us if we lose them. But let’s not think about that. Let’s watch reality TV instead.