The story of Arthur and his mates roaming the streets of Ponsonby and Herne Bay in Auckland is played out ever day in every big city in the world. Two recent online pieces have reminded me of this. The first is by Brian Edwards, media commentator and NZ Labour Party stalwart. In his blog he writes:
“When the weather is fine, Judy and I go for a morning walk around our local suburbs – Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Herne Bay. Our walk takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, depending on the route, and invariably ends with a cup of coffee and, if we’re feeling wildly irresponsible, a biscotti. (Did you know that the word ‘biscuit’ comes from the French and means ‘twice cooked’. No charge for that derivational gem!)
We’re quite well known for our walking and expect to be bailed up several times for a chat with friends and acquaintances. It’s fun.
Less amusing is being harassed by the legions of collectors, fundraisers, proselytisers and raffle-ticket sellers who lie in wait in Three Lamps where, less than coincidentally, there are several banks and the local Post Office. I’m perfectly happy to hand over a few bob for most charities, but I really don’t want to be lectured for 10 minutes on the threat to the rainforests, the plight of the blue-nosed dolphin, the work of Amnesty International in Tibet, the evils of Wall Street, or why I really ought to buy a raffle ticket to support our Paraplegic Olympians .
I’m not a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, penny-pinching scrooge; I’m just sick of being stopped in the bloody street and harangued by total strangers.
On the other hand, I don’t mind being bailed up by the local alcoholics, drug addicts, deadbeats, beggars and pavement-dwellers, or tossing a dollar or two to the small army of one-note mouth-organ players, two-string ukulele pluckers and the occasional 12-year-old fiddle virtuoso.
Before leaving home, I now collect up half a pocketful of loose change for this very purpose. I do this because I’m selfish. You see, a year or two back I read this article by some guy in some magazine who said that he ALWAYS gave money to people who asked him for it in the street. And he’d discovered how much better it made him feel. Selfish reason perhaps, but it did no harm and possibly a little good.
Which brings me to this morning. We’ve finished our walk. I’m sitting at a table in front of Dida’s restaurant in Jervois Road. Judy is inside ordering the coffee. There’s a young, affluent looking couple at the next table. Then this guy, who I’m reasonably sure comes from one of the local halfway houses or rehab centres, stops and asks the young couple, ‘Have you got any money?’ He’s not a pretty sight and he leans rather unnervingly down over their table, rather close. ‘Have you got any money?’ Without making eye contact, the young man says ‘No’ and shakes his head. His partner looks away.
I’m next. ‘Have you got any money?’ I’ve got two single dollars left in my pocket and hand them to him. ‘Aw Jesus, thanks mate. Thanks.’
Two bucks is nothing to me. But it’s a lot to him. And I’m selfish. I feel good.
If I’ve a point to make here, it’s probably got less to do with the fact that the young couple didn’t give this guy any money – they’re under no obligation to do so – but that the answer they gave to his question ‘Have you got any money?’ was, ‘No.’
That scene is probably repeated in our towns and cities thousands of times every day. Beggars ask, ‘Have you got any money? Got any spare change?’ We answer, ‘No.’
What offends me about this is not that it’s almost certainly untrue that we haven’t got any money, but that it’s such a patent, shameless and cowardly lie. Somehow the very obviousness of the lie is more insulting, more demeaning to the asker than it would be to be told to ‘Go away!’ or ‘Piss off!’ – ‘Here we are drinking our $4 flat whites in our beautiful clothes in the most expensive suburb in New Zealand and asking you to believe that we really, really, really haven’t got any money or spare change. Sorry!’
It’s an esoteric point perhaps and maybe I’m making too much of it. But I’m going to carry on collecting the spare change around the house before Judy and I go out for our walk each morning. As I said, I’m selfish and it makes me feel good. And who knows what the future holds for any of us . Let’s just call it ‘bread upon the waters’.”
The second piece was a little more snotty – a news story about the angry respectable people:
Mt Albert residents fed up with “menacing” transients who they say are scaring people have vowed to rid the suburb of the problem.
Community leaders are urging residents and business owners to bombard authorities with complaints while they also put pressure on police to do more.
People say the vagrants have been driven out of the central city and are congregating at the Mt Albert shops where they are drinking, begging, busking, hustling, cleaning windscreens at intersections and sniffing glue in public.
“These people are quite intimidating,” Albert-Eden Local Board spokeswoman Pauline Anderson says.
She says sometimes they are in groups as big as 12 and they are scrimping together enough money to buy booze then drinking it in public.
“Then during the day it progressively gets worse. They get more high and more drunk to the point where they’re dodging traffic and just being a menace. People are crossing the street to avoid them,” she says.
She says police can take several hours to respond to calls which often have to be made several times and police patrols have increased at the board’s request.
Ms Anderson says they want people to be more proactive. “There is a little bit of apathy which I believe is a big part of the problem.”
Auckland Council ran a campaign with business owners about four months ago outlining the options available and providing phone numbers to call to report issues. If all the incidents were reported they would have the statistics to back up their complaints, Ms Anderson says.
“All we can do is encourage people to keep on at the police, to keep calling, reporting everything they see, every incident.”
The aim is to try to draw people back to the shopping centre.
“It’s not that we don’t want them in Mt Albert. We just want them to behave in a socially acceptable way. It’s up to us to show them that what they’re doing is unacceptable.
Resident and business owner Catherine Goodwin says the issue was raised again at the Mt Albert Residents Association meeting last week.
The group had resolved to work harder to generate a more forceful police action.
“I understand there’s a lot of mental health and alcohol dependency issues that are facing these people.
“But somebody needs to step in and provide whatever resource is needed to help them.
“I’m not suggesting that it’s a vigilante response but they clearly need help and so we need help from police to achieve that,” Ms Goodwin says.
“It affects every business owner because it runs risk to your premises and it affects how many people are going to be pedestrians in the area,” she says.
“We rely on those pedestrians for our business.”
Ms Goodwin says she isn’t advocating for the vagrants to be pushed elsewhere
“We need the police on the street, walking the street.”
Avondale Senior Sergeant Scott Leonard says there’s been “a fair bit of under-reporting” of incidents.
He urges people to persist and continue to contact police.
“We work off a priority system and in some cases we have not been able to get there in time.”
Vagrants? Or people who’ve been knocked around a bit by life? And should we want to impoverish ourselves by banning them from the streets, or enrich ourselves by showing a little friendship and compassion? I know what Arthur would do…