Poverty kills: a memorial service for homeless Australians

By Mariann Biron – vendor and regular contributor with The Big Issue Australia

Who remembers the people who die while homeless? A memorial service was recently held in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia for those who lost their lives while on the streets. Mariann Biron was there to pay her respects.

Photo: Shay KelleyAs I walk to the 15th annual homeless memorial in St Kilda, I think about two teenage girls who died in an abandoned railway carriage. Ahead of me, a plant has punched its way through a crack in the footpath, hell-bent on survival. If only humans were this resilient…

The memorial is held in the early evening at the Peanut Farm Reserve. Nearby is the Veg Out Community garden, which looks like a cemetery when seen through the wire fence in the gathering gloom. Wooden stakes, like tombstones, mark each vegetable plot. An unseen bird screeches somewhere.

We are greeted by an Aboriginal elder, Marbee Williams, who is preparing a ‘Welcome to Country’ smoking ceremony. The dispossessed are welcoming the homeless… He gathers leaves, some cherry ballart for the children, eucalyptus for the community, wattle for the elders, then lights a small fire.

The smoking ceremony is a spiritual practice used to cleanse the land we are standing on. A healing process. The smoke is also meant to cover the participants’ bodies, ridding them of what is not needed. We walk through the smoke to the mournful sounds of a didgeridoo, played by a man called Judda. The pungent, pleasant-scented smoke works its magic.

Our public faces fall away. We huddle together in our shared humanity.

Our public faces fall away. We huddle together in our shared humanity. In his welcoming speech, Marbee Williams acknowledges the struggle experienced by homeless people.

The crowd of people who have come together to honour and remember the people who died as a result of homelessness is a mixed bunch. Men, used to sleeping rough, with their beanies pulled down and jacket collars turned up. Welfare workers, wearing name-tags, with their hearts on their sleeves. Friends of the deceased. Politicians. Volunteers. Young women still at the ‘couch surfing’ stage, used to moving from place to place. Volunteers. Friends of the deceased. A young man draped in a blanket is carrying a knitted doll.

Soup, stew and hot drinks are served before and after the ceremony. Knitted gloves, scarves, woolly hats and jackets – I think of them as warm fuzzies – are also offered. A temporary marquee and portable outdoor heaters take the edge off the cold.

An information pamphlet produced by the local council is distributed. It lists support agencies in the area for people sleeping rough. It also has advice about dealing with services. On the front page is a stark headline: No fixed address – It can happen to anyone…

One by one, survivors of homelessness share stories about their former lives. They speak about a downward spiral of depression, daily struggles and trying to self-medicate their pain. Several express gratitude for the help they received; help that saved their lives.

A welfare worker recalls a client who, while living in straitened circumstances herself, still managed to take others under her wing. She looks composed, but her voice falters.

As philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “everyone has something precious in them that is in no-one else.” The only thing they had in common was lack of money to buy safety and shelter.

Everyone present is invited to light a candle as a symbol of remembrance for those who have died and also for the survivors of homelessness. This is followed by one minute’s silence. I feel both comforted and unsettled. Comforted by the outpouring of love, unsettled because those to whom it is directed are not there to be warmed by it. Each was a unique individual. As philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “everyone has something precious in them that is in no-one else.” The only thing they had in common was lack of money to buy safety and shelter. Poverty kills.

The ceremony concludes with a performance by singers from the ‘City of Voices’ choir. They sway gently from side to side singing Have You Ever Seen The Rain?, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bill Withers’ Lean on Me. The woman standing next to me turns her face to hide her tears.

This homeless memorial, which began in 2001, is now an annual event. It is organised by local health and community groups and is assisted by a working party of people who have experienced homelessness, community elders and workers from agencies that focus on those who have been marginalised.

People experiencing homelessness die at more than three times the rate of the general population. On census night in 2011, more than 100,000 people were recorded as homeless in Australia.

Tomorrow, the portable heaters will be gone from this reserve. A poor soul will be lying on this exposed, freezing ground. Praying for the long night to end.

The words of one of the speakers, a survivor of long-term homelessness, rings in my ears: “Reach out for help. Don’t do life on your own.”