Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Appeals to Guilt and Pity

Auckland's Phoney Homeless Make $100 a Day on the Streets  

Amanda Saxton

[In our public-welfarist society, the avenues and pathways to get help are both numerous and ubiquitous.  For some, living on the streets is a hard-core lifestyle choice.  But it only works if people walking by are moved by guilt and pity.  It seems like plenty of people are. Ed.]

Every morning, a group of men gather in downtown Auckland. Half of them aren't homeless, but they act like it.

Auckland Council has announced it will count the city's rough sleepers to fully grasp the scale of homelessness. We took to the streets to learn about those on society's edge in the city's centre, whose current way of life the council hopes to eliminate.  Before sunrise, every morning, a group of men gather in downtown Auckland. They've been doing this since before the SkyTower was built in the 1990s. One's lost a leg in that time.

The quartet make chairs out of bread crates cushioned with cardboard boxes and play Fleetwood Mac via a bluetooth speaker.  Someone always drops off a bag of day-old meat pies just after 7am. Buddies the men consider brothers walk past, getting fist bumps and a pie if they're lucky. A dishevelled, jittery old fella named Joseph staggers over and slips $20 to one of the seated men.

Mark Phillip, Sole Johnstone, Kenny Dahl and a rough sleeping friend spend their mornings on Victoria St, in downtown ...
Mark Phillip, Sole Johnstone, Kenny Dahl and a rough sleeping friend spend their mornings on Victoria St, in downtown Auckland, hustling passersby and swigging beer.

Its recipient – Mark Phillip – carefully moves two cans of Kingfisher beer from under his hoody to behind his bread crate, stands up, and sets off for the convenience store across the road.  "Joseph can't buy beer there 'cause he's been trespassed," Phillip explains, upon his return. "So one of us goes, and charges for 'gas money'."  When asked if it isn't a bit harsh to take money from a visibly struggling friend, Phillip winks.  "It's a tax, it's one of my hustles – it's what we do out here," he says.

By 8.30am the men are wasted.
That's what time it was when we met them last Thursday, and they told us to come back before 7am the next day if we wanted a sober conversation. Which is what we've done.

They look homeless, act homeless, and half of them actually are homeless.  But Phillip and the group's kaumātua Sole Johnstone have houses to go home to each evening. While they call themselves 'hustlers', they could also be labelled professional beggars.  Each has done his share of genuine rough sleeping, though, and the pair figure they've now got the best of both worlds.

Former rough sleeper Mark Phillip, 53, has kids currently living on the streets.  Fifty-three-year-old Phillip gets the sickness benefit due to gout, which he believes was caused by decades of alcoholism.  "Yep, I've been a drunk since I was 12," he says. "And I was kicked out of home at age nine."

Phillip says his first stint of homelessness followed the familial expulsion, and that he's mostly lived indoors since 1983.  So why, if he has a home and an income, does he wake up before sparrow's fart in the middle of winter to beg on the streets?  The answer is simple: he's doing what makes him happy. When asked how he'd rate his happiness out of 10, Phillip says he's an 11 "easy".
Former rough sleeper Mark Phillip, 53, has kids currently living on the streets.
Former rough sleeper Mark Phillip, 53, has kids currently living on the streets.

"Why would I stay home, doing nothing? I love this, I love being with my brothers, I love hustling, I love speaking with people.  "Why would we work, slaving 40 hours a week, when we can get $100 a pop sitting here? And I can get drunk at the same time."  On a good day, Phillip makes about $100 begging. On an amazing day, $200 – that's on top of his benefit and his partner's salary.  [Emphasis, ours.]

He says he spends about $100 a day on beer and the odd bit of whiskey.  "I make sure I go home about 4pm – have a shower, brush my teeth, and wait for the missus to come home," he says.  He doesn't miss sleeping on the street, it's the streeties' camaraderie during the day he savours.

Phillip says he's proud of his lifestyle, but sombre when asked what his 13 kids and seven grandchildren think of it.  He admits his drinking was a problem during their childhoods: "but it is what it is and I can't change," he says.  "All they need to know is that dad's living in a house."

Some of Phillip's kids are currently homeless themselves, which he says "is their choice". He won't have them hang out on his Victoria St patch, but occasionally lets them spend a night or two at his apartment.  "I ask 'what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to go to [Work and Income]? Are you going to do something positive?' And they're like, 'aw nah. I just want to rest'.

"And then they go back out there. I tell them that if they're not going to help themselves, no one else is gonna help them. That's my attitude."  The police drive by and Phillip tucks the beer he's been sipping back under his hoody, exaggerating his already hefty paunch. He waves at the yellow and blue ute and gives us another wink.  "As long as they can't see our booze, the pigs are our friends," he says.

Freckle-faced Kenny Dahl is 42 and says he's slept rough on and off since age 18. At the moment, "anywhere I lay my head is home". He is quieter than Phillip and has a nervous, gulping laugh.  Four or five years ago – he's not quite sure – surgeons amputated Dahl's right leg beneath the knee. Its bones smashed when he jumped off a three metre-high cliff in Takapuna, to win a dare.

"Snap, crackle, pop, it went," he says. Not a fan of hospitals, Dahl limped out before getting the surgery he needed to fix the leg. Infection set in, and amputation became the only option.  Having one leg doesn't bother Dahl, he says. His crutches carry him wherever he needs to go, and besides, he's "seen plenty of folk with worse".

When asked how he spends his days, the amputee asks whether we'd like to hear a poem. We would, so he recites American poet Dale Wimbrow's 'The Guy in the Glass'. He says he memorised it while in rehab on Rotoroa Island for his alcohol addiction.  Dahl writes his own poetry too, and enjoys sharing it with passersby in a bid to brighten their day – and perhaps hear the tinny thud of a coin in his stained paper cup.

A red-jacketed friend of the men, also swigging from Kingfisher beer cans that morning, chimes in: "Kenny makes an effort to help the young, eh."  Dahl nods: "This ain't no lifestyle for the up and coming." He says he tries to engage with youngsters veering towards homelessness. When he spies one on the street, he lends them his phone and tells them to call their parents.  "They need to tell their mums that they're safe," he says.

If Dahl doesn't approve of the street life for others, why does he put up with it for himself, especially given two of his best 'brothers' live indoors?  "I'm doing OK for now, I think," he replies.

Sixty-four-year-old Sole Johnstone ran away from what he says was abusive state care at age 16, and began a three-year stint of sleeping under Auckland's Harbour Bridge.  That was the first time he felt a sense of community: "when I was on the streets, we looked after each other and we got really close", he says.  He went on to serve in the army, but has been periodically homeless until 10 years ago when a bout of ill-health got him hospitalised. Since then, Johnstone's been sleeping in a central Auckland apartment complex he calls Alcatraz.

Former rough sleeper Sole Johnstone, 62, spends more time on the streets than he does at home.
Former rough sleeper Sole Johnstone, 62, spends more time on the streets than he does at home.

He reckons he'd be dead within six months if we went back to sleeping rough, due to his poor health. Three of the group's closest mates had died this year already.  "They'd have been sitting here with us now," he says. "But that's part and parcel of the lifestyle we live."

Sometimes Johnstone speaks as though he still is homeless.The fact he lives in a proper house seems to cause him a degree of shame – he's quick to emphasise how he spends more time hustling with his buddies on the street than he does at home.  "I still comes out in the rain, I don't miss a single day," he says. "Cause the bros are out here. They're not in my warm home. So I want to be out here with them.  I'm in town out 5am every morning, wandering around, checking that everyone's all right. Then we all meet up back here around 7am every day."

Johnstone doesn't – quite – romanticise homelessness: "It's freezing, dangerous, there's people coming past and kicking you. It can be quite nasty sometimes ... The weather can be brutal," he says.  "The downfall can be drugs, for me it was. I was addicted to synthetics, an alcoholic. Then there's the getting yourself in debt."

But he doesn't evangelise housing to his mates that still face those darker realities.   "I don't tell them they should do it. It's a choice [to take organisations such as the City Mission up on housing offers] and it's their life," he says.  "Same way it's my choice to go out hustling, and it's people's choice to put money in my cup. It's my right to put a cup out and it's been done since biblical times."

Many of the people walking past the four men enquire after their health, drop off a pie, or question why we're "bothering the homeless". Those spoken with say they don't do any harm, that they feel sorry for anyone spending winter nights on the street.  One of Kenny's crutches knocks over a Kingfisher can, and its contents trickle down the hill, pooling around Phillip's feet.  "Oi, don't waste your blimmin' beer," he admonishes, then smiles sweetly at a pedestrian.

Johnstone starts speaking about his love of pedestrians, of his street brothers, and of John Grisham's 1989 novel The Street Lawyer. It's a book dealing with homelessness and drug addicts.  "They're actually nice people out here," he wants us to know.   "We actually are nice people . . . we're actually just humans like anybody else. We have feelings."

As the men drink more, get rowdier, and make less sense, we do a round of fist bumping and leave them to their hustles.

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