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Don’t feed the homeless or poor — it only encourages them

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The poor will always be among us — at least while we have leaders like Tony Abbott, says Lyn Bender.

PM Tony Abbott is boasting about his superior strategy of pushing back the boats, even as 8,000 lost souls drift in the Asian seas crying for rescue. “I stopped the boats”, he crows, in spite of the clear evidence directly contradicting that claim. Let them drown, rings out around his words: it will save lives and I won’t let the smugglers win the war.

Meanwhile, he is ensuring – back home and abroad – his long held view

"The poor will always be with us."   

Yes, one is fortunate indeed to not be poor.

I am suffering woman flu, but even if I had died from my current illness – a combination of infection asthma and influenza – I would still have been amongst the fortunate few. I have a home, warmth, access to medical assistance, medication, and food and family help, if needed.

If I were among the homeless in the streets outside my apartment, I would be at risk of dying. At 67, I may have already died, as the life expectancy of the homeless is considerably lower than in the general population.

What happens to the homeless when they are really sick? If they lie too long under their blankets or bundled in tarpaulins, or are are seen as threatening or inebriated, are they asked to move on? Are they treated aggressively? How many are found stone cold and rigid under bridges – which are not counted or publicised – or is that only in America? Or France, where Les Morts de la Rue reported that, according to homeless statistics, at least one person dies every 20 hours on the streets.

Cabin fever drives me to venture out and I pass supplicants with their cardboard signs, too fatigued myself to try to feel in my pockets and bag for my usual short change. I try not to see the looks of misery as I step into the supermarket to replenish my supplies of lemon ginger and honey.

“It was cold last night,” I hear a voice from the ground murmur. I can’t respond, I am rendered speechless, as my own voice is now an inaudible croak.

When I am well, I sometimes ask if the person in the bundle of blankets wants something to eat? The tastes are often like those of an invalid — the so-called comfort foods. Sugary flavoured milk, pies and sausage rolls. Kids party food. Bland familiar fast food, that fills the belly easily. Consumed more comfortably by a mouthful of missing and bad teeth — another marker of the long-term destitute.

"There will always be poor people," says Tony Abbott, so why worry?

And the 2014 Budget, with its cuts to essential services and supports to the vulnerable, which is still embedded in the 2015 Budget, will ensure this.

Satirist Stephen Colbert adds to Abbott’s biblical wisdom.

He cites the case of a 90 year old Fort Lauderdale resident Arnold Abbott – probably no relation – who has been “busted for feeding the homeless in public” and cooking for them in a Church!

“Don’t feed the homeless, or they’ll come to expect it whenever they see humans.”

Foreign Aid to the poorest in the world has also been massively slashed. So long school and education for Syrian refugee children. So long programs for women in Kenya to achieve self-reliance in farming.

Back in my lair, I have time and energy to scour the online news and social media. I ache and my throat feels aflame, but each day I see signs of improvement. I have hope. But what hope do the stranded, homeless, stateless, starving Bangladeshi and Rohingyas on the sea have? Abandoned and pushed back, they beg “passing” boats for food and water. Their emergency is now a television grab and media sound bites. But we are not hearing their cries.

Our near neighbors, are refusing to help them — their ruthlessness encouraged by Australia’s relentless downward moral spiral.

“We have stopped the boats”, in various iniquitous ways, screeches Tony Abbott. He has advised Europe to adopt his approach, claiming that it will stop the deaths. But where can the refugees go?

Drift on the seas till death, or be sent back to persecution, like the European refugees on the ship St Louis?

Jews on board the Ship St Louis sought to escape from Nazi Germany in 1939. The ship’s captain had been refused landing rights by Cuba, America and Canada. The refugees were returned to Europe, which later fell to Nazi occupation. At least a third died in concentration camps.

Our boat refugees are now a security matter. The Australian Border Force (ABF) has been created. Operation Sovereign Borders has been absorbed under this more “Team Australia" like handle”. The names change, the rhetoric adapts, but the boats and drowning refugees keep going into the sea.

Those pesky desperate, persecuted starving pleading refugees have appeared on the horizons of the Asian seas to haunt obsessed, maniacal Captain Ahab Abbott, like the unconquerable mockery of the white whale, Moby Dick.

But for now, as Abbott yells encouragement, the boat people are being pushed back and visibly kicked around. They are being moved on and back to where they came from.

It is hard to deny the likelihood of genuine refugee status. But the other ASEAN nations, pushing them back are not signatories to the UN Convention on Refugees.

These nations are now acting like a buffer for Australia — also a member of ASEAN and a signatory. But Australia has been visibly reneging on its International obligations for over a decade. The Abbott Government is now in a weak position to encourage ASEAN to validate the Conventions. But does Abbott's Australia want them to? Why would it? Not when it’s all about “stopping the boats” and winning the "war against smugglers". Refugee Conventions are simply a hindrance to these aims.

Compassion is out of fashion.

To those who criticize the homeless and displaced as imperfect, or undeserving, or sigh with hollow sadness that they must, sadly, be sacrificed for the greater good, to stop boats and drowning – just collateral damage – let me urge remembrance.

The homeless and refugees are of all stripes. Some may be unheroic, or have come from humble or disturbed origins. They are not all perfect – as people who have are not – but they are human beings. Many are children. All are suffering. They deserve to be rescued and treated with humanity. If we do less than this, we become lesser beings.

We join the oppressors.

We could all do and be so much more.

As the proliferation of drifting boats shows, our policy does not deter. It just displaces the problem. It just asks them to move on.

You can follow Lyn Bender on Twitter @lynestel.

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