Homelessness is something that we observe in the street, in the shop doorways, in our parks and occasionally on TV or newspapers, but seldom have any close contact with in our day-to-day lives. It's generally not until you engage with a homeless person on a more personal level that the true reality of their circumstances really hits home.
Our newly established camera club was in search of new premises when a local businessman offered us a vacant building, which we jumped at without hesitation.
On our first visit we met Mick, who had made his home under the loading dock stairs with an old couch and some cardboard boxes serving as storage for his few possessions. Mick would often be found sitting in the sun smoking a "roll your own" or when money was scarce he would be puffing on rolled up cardboard, accompanied by an unimaginably loud and persistent cough. It seemed never unpleasant enough to make him give up the smokes.
It was obvious that his diet was not, good judging by the empty fast food containers, cans and bottles that were scattered about his living area. We would often stop and talk on the way to club meetings and it was obvious he enjoyed the conversation, which in the most part was about how much he appreciated us stopping for a chat.
Mick was a well-known local character around town and many people helped out with food, goods and offers of accommodation. It seemed that he was quite content with his life on the street and preferred the independence of his own arrangements even though the discomfort and the Albany winter weather must have been very hard to endure.
I once came across him sitting in a local park enjoying the sun and a smoke. I had my camera with me I asked if it was ok to take a few photos.
"Yeah, no worries" he replied in his broad European accent. He proved to be a bit of a poser and was obviously enjoying being the centre of attention. Sadly, just a few weeks later there was news in the media reporting the discovery of a deceased homeless person in a local public toilet. We all sensed that it would almost certainly be Mick and this was eventually confirmed, leaving us feeling that we could and should have somehow done more.
Sometime later we heard that his son in Croatia had been trying to contact him without success for a considerable time since Mick emigrated alone when his son was just four years old. It was only after his father's death decades later that he sadly discovered his whereabouts. An appeal was made for any information on his life and many people forwarded photos and personal accounts of what they knew about Mick, which must have brought some closure for his family.
Although our encounter with Mick was all too brief, it brought home to us all in a very graphic way how, as a society, we really should be doing much better in looking after those who are in need of a helping hand.
Hopefully programs like this will go some way to increasing our awareness of the issue, and gradually lead to some way of providing more resources and help where it's most needed.
In the meantime, let's not forget that it's up to us all to make the difference.