Ed#463: Flowers in the park

18 July 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#463: Flowers in the park

In a park close to Melbourne’s CBD on a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon, I noticed that flowers had been left around the base of a tree. This puzzled me until I remembered this had been the scene of a crime the previous weekend: a woman was murdered. The suspect, subsequently arrested, was a homeless man. He had been sleeping rough not far from where the crime was committed. Before he was apprehended, police released a photograph of the man they were seeking. It ended up on the front page of the Herald Sun newspaper, along with the headline ‘Hunt for Killer Hobo’. This was extraordinary, and not just because ‘hobo’ is a term used in the US more than Australia. There was a clear assumption of guilt – before any charges had been laid. And it seemed clear that this was being done because the suspect was homeless – a man without a fixed address and somebody unlikely to have a vigilant lawyer ready to defend his rights, which include the presumption of innocence. But isn’t everyone meant to be equal in the eyes of the law?

This was a shocking crime. It touched a great many people who did not know the victim. Hence the flowers left where her body was found. Many women were made to feel unsafe and vulnerable because of what happened. That is deeply regrettable. But it is no excuse for demonising people in the community or using the word ‘homeless’ as a pejorative adjective. Homelessness is seldom a life choice. Using ‘Killer Hobo’ in a front-page headline has the potential to endanger people who already have problems.

It’s not uncommon to see The Big Issue described in mainstream media as “the street magazine sold by homeless people”. That is rather misleading. To start with, what exactly is a ‘street magazine’? There are sports magazines, even stamp magazines, so does this one focus on streets – with features, perhaps, on breakthroughs in bitumen? Of course not. And while many of our vendors will have had some experience of homelessness, it is simplistic and often incorrect to perceive them as vagrants or rough-sleepers. Becoming involved with The Big Issue can be a way to climb out of such situations. Many things can cause people’s lives to slip off the rails: substance abuse, of all kinds; gambling; mental illness; poor choices; or plain bad luck. We have vendors with some or all of those things in their life stories, plus many disabled vendors. They are working to improve their own circumstances – not just relying on others for handouts. They all deserve support. None of them deserves to be portrayed as part of a group leaning on others or, worse, representing a threat to anyone.

Because so many different people, with different stories, make up The Big Issue community I have sometimes wondered if the most appropriate, all-encompassing description of our vendors is simply “people who are used to being ignored”. I certainly think that when I see commuters streaming past a vendor, not making eye contact and (I suspect) having a decidedly fuzzy idea of what the magazine is all about. It’s frustrating, as I believe that many could be customers if they knew just a little more about the enterprise. Even after 18 years, many people still don’t get what we do. And they manage to see past, or straight through, our vendors.

The opposite of being ignored is having a hostile media spotlight focused directly on you. This is what happened to one individual in Victoria recently – a man who, it should be said, had a brief involvement with The Big Issue in Western Australia some time ago. But his situation does not expunge his basic human and legal rights. Courts, not headline writers, determine people’s guilt or innocence. And homelessness itself is not a crime.

>> Alan Atwood is Editor of The Big Issue

This article appears in issue #463 of The Big Issue magazine