The cold hard footpath stings as I lurch back and forth attempting to get comfortable, stomach rumbling amidst the bustle of George Street. Back and forth I sway to keep warm, the breeze howling in my head, nipping at my ears. Back and forth I remain, begging for change. Some drop a coin, some are disgusted, my presence snarling in their mind, nonetheless back and forth I continue; like a pendulum, the cycle never ends. Once a day I rise. Once a day I fall asleep. Just like you, although you may not see it that way. I want to be normal, except I’m not. I’m homeless.

Dehumanisation: The process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities. When you hear this definition what does it mean to you? Do you think of racism, or maybe genocide? It’s time that when we hear dehumanisation, we don’t think of far-fetched atrocities, but rather closer to home; in our towns, in our cities and in our streets. We must start thinking of those most vulnerable as our equals, or these problems will never resolve. “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty”. These words, spoken by Mother Teresa, resonate deep into the lives and the hearts of those on the streets.

Family issues and a lack of family support are often what lead to homelessness, and the resulting feeling of not being good enough often moulds itself into addiction and a life on the streets, a cycle that’s almost unbreakable. This idea of being unloved and uncared for is shown throughout an anonymous interview I conducted with Michael (a pseudonym) who has been living on and off the streets since 1988. Michael’s first taste of homelessness was set into motion this way: “I got taken off my family and thrown into boarding school and then got abused a lot”. Without any outside support, Michael soon dropped out of school, and his life on the streets began shortly after, and has still yet to end. Without a support system, a common next-step is to turn to substance abuse, which is a coping mechanism, a way to take yourself out of these situations. Michael said, “the reason why I’m homeless is because I’ve got no education, I’ve got no job, done nothing for my life and done nothing to help myself. That’s the reason why I drink alcohol because it numbs you, takes away those feelings”.

This is where the problem of dehumanisation begins. During addiction, Michael and countless others living on the streets aren’t seen as people going through a rough time, but rather drunks and addicts. This sort of stereotyping and grouping has a monumental effect on mental health and wellbeing that is almost irreversible. Michael knows this first-hand, “I’ve been spat at, abused, kicked and all that sort of stuff… people like abusing those who are less fortunate, because they don’t understand your situation… What people forget is everybody’s one paycheck away from being homeless themselves. If you lost your job, got no money, got nothing, what are you going to do?”

Once you’re on the streets, the problem of cleanliness affects almost all human interactions, in how people think of you and how people treat you. Michael went on to say how sometimes he knew he wasn’t clean enough, and wouldn’t go into a shop because of the way that he smelt

and the reaction that it would cause from others. Michael continued, “when you live a certain way for long enough, you become that person. If you act a certain way, it becomes part of who you are. I’ve been living on and off the streets since the 80’s, and it’s become part of who I am.” This is where the unbreakable cycle begins; “Before I knew it my life was just gone.”

Get a job! Worthless. Wasting taxpayers money. This is barely tipping your toes into the rabbithole of abuse received by New Zealand’s most vulnerable on regular occasions. What happened to our empathy? Walk along George Street or the Octagon on a Saturday night, and you can see how homeless people such as Michael are treated. Now imagine this is you, imagine being told you are worth nothing almost everyday of your life, and imagine it being so normalised that others rarely stand up to stop it. Besides, they think you’ll just use the money for drugs.

In my attempt to answer the question of our empathy, I was led down the path of defining what empathy is. One definition I found was “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling”. Are those living on the street viewed as so inferior to the ‘normal’ person that they aren’t even seen as people? For that I’ll leave Associate Professor in Psychology Jackie Hunter to answer. She said, “some people won’t notice the homeless. I know that there is some research which shows that when the homeless are seen by others, there is little neural activity in the brain. Essentially, the homeless are often not seen as being human. This means that people will ignore them, or treat them poorly. Such treatment will hurt the homeless psychologically (e.g., lowering their feelings of self-worth) – and materially (people won’t give them support financially or in terms of sustenance), will for example help keep them from improving their situation.”

Dehumanisation and lack of empathy in the form Michael and others face is similar to what the Jews faced in the holocaust, and the Tutsi’s faced in Rwanda, not in action but in the mindset in which they are seen. Dr Hunter also said “another possibility is Just World Thinking – people think that bad things happen to bad people. Some people also adopt certain belief systems which justify inequality – e.g. the belief that there are simply people who are deserving and those who are not. Others believe that people who are different are bad….What we forget, is everyone is one paycheck away from being homeless themselves”. So, who is really less human? Those who throw the punches, or those that take them? We must view all people as individuals and equals before any progress is made.

In society we argue over social justice, we swear we make change, yet everyday remains the same. The looks don’t stop, the words don’t stop, nothing ever changes. The hurdles of homelessness are difficult to escape, and we should ask ourselves this question: How do we expect a person living on the street to believe in themselves, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when no one believes in them and they are called “nothing”. Maybe if we raised people like Michael up instead of pulling them down, there would be one less seat on the footpath tomorrow.