Occasionally throughout this project, when people have asked me where I’m living, I’ve joked that ‘I’m homeless’. That’s really just not true, in fact the opposite is. I’ve been in abundance of homes for a while now, and I certainly don’t take that for granted.
Tonight, walking into my local supermarket, I saw a woman sitting out the front asking for change. Maybe homelessness was on my mind after chatting with co-workers about the change in local Melbourne laws that are making sleeping rough an offence. Maybe it’s just always a little bit on my mind, knowing that family violence is one of the top reasons people end up on the street.
Usually, I would give a few coins in passing and tell myself that I do enough, I give to charities regularly and work for a service that tries to improve the system overall. Stopping to talk to someone can sometimes feel daunting, and although I admire those people you see chatting with people on the street, I’m a bit ashamed to say I’ve never been one of them. At least, not until tonight. After I’d walked into the supermarket with only a quick smile for this woman, I turned around and walked back out.
‘Hey’, I said. ‘Is there anything in there I could get for you?’
The woman’s response surprised me. She looked down into the bag by her side.
‘Thanks, but I’ve got heaps of food. Hey! Do you want these bananas?’ She took some ripe bananas out of her bag and handed them to me. I accepted them gratefully (do you know how hard it is to find ripe bananas in a supermarket these days?) before realising I still had to go in and do my shopping. I told her I’d come and stop on my way back out.
When I finished my shopping I had some cash for her. She had sorted through her bag and managed to fill a whole plastic bag with food she wanted to give me.
‘Do you want any of this?’ She asked me. ‘I just hate waste and I’m not going to be able to eat it all.’ I commented on how much she had put in the bag to give me – fruit, biscuits, bread. ‘Yeah’, she said. ‘It’ll just go bad if I can’t use it. Someone came out earlier and offered me bananas. When I told her I already had some she got offended and stormed off in a rush. I thought, well it was a nice offer but there’s no reason to get upset! There’s only so many bananas you can eat in a day.’
We ended up chatting. She asked to use my phone to check the weather and the radar and then wished me a nice evening. In the end, I walked away with more than I’d given her. And it was a surprising reminder of something so obvious that we often forget it:
Sometimes we like to think we’re helping and that we know how best to do that. Don’t assume you’re helping just because it feels good to you. You might be able to help someone or even give them a way to help themselves, but ask them what that looks like and if they even want it. Choice is a powerful tool that many people have taken away from them, especially in times of hardship. Respecting someone’s ability to choose for themselves is important and empowering, even if it doesn’t sit as nicely as our usual go-to options.
I gave her the money and let go of any judgements around the ‘right things to spend it on’. Cos if I was ever sleeping rough or experiencing homelessness, you can better my bottom dollar I’d like to be choosing what gets me by.
And I’m just not sure it’d be bananas.
On a related note, this is a very interesting read for anyone looking to learn a little about economics and human behaviour without having to study it or read textbooks. Think, Freakonomics meets global poverty.
It will make more sense why this note is related if you read the book.
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011)
Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo