Some months back, a seasonal Victorian firefighter was injured on the job. He suffered serious internal injuries and burns, bad enough that he was admitted to intensive care and had to spend months in rehabilitation. Then he was told that he would not be re-hired for the next summer. He was offered a week’s pay in settlement on the proviso that he not speak publically about the whole thing.
Money ran out and the ex-firefighter, Joe Brown, his partner Ben and their two cats became homeless. While the Fire Service claimed they were providing support, Joe says that he only ever had one meeting with Parks Victoria, that they underpaid him, and that he had been cleared to work by a doctor. He hasn’t been able to find work, and after losing their home it became a struggle just to keep up with living costs.
Here’s where Joe and Ben got lucky. Twitter user @Jamus_ set up a curation account in the style of @sweden, @PeopleofNZ and @WeAreAustralia, specifically to feature the homeless population of Melbourne. First Joe and then Ben each spent a week using the account to share their story. It helps that in many ways they fit into the model of the “deserving poor”, an ideal that has an extremely long history. Their situation was not of their own doing. Joe had held a frontline job in an extremely highly regarded profession, and was injured in the pursuit of that work. Neither of them have drug or alcohol problems or mental illness (with the exception of Joe’s likely PTSD, which he’s said is an effect largely of how he was treated while in recovery rather than the accident itself). They’re literate and well-spoken. In short, their problems couldn’t be attributed to any moral failing on their count – and if this could happen to a firefighter, a noble protector of the people in a country where fire is a seriously big deal, it could happen to anyone.
While tweeting from the account, Joe and Ben found an estate agent who’d let a flat to them. All they had to do was come up with the $600 bond. They went to Victoria’s DHS and it seemed they’d be able to get the money from them. However, the next week they were told that Joe had an outstanding $450 debt dating from 2004, and until it was repayed they wouldn’t be able to get any help. Joe says he’d repaid it, and even if he hadn’t they hadn’t heard anything about it in the nine years since, but short of getting the decision reviewed there wasn’t much they could do. There was an hour left on the deadline to raise the bond.
In New Zealand the banks were already closed for the day, and none of them would process a payment in less than a day anyway. I offered to repay anyone in Melbourne who’d be able to put up the bond money, but an hour ticked by with no response. It was too short notice.
Today, though, everything fell into place. The agent was still trying to find out if Joe and Ben would be able to pay, and now more people were becoming aware of the situation – even @Asher_Wolf, a well-established Australian activist, was tweeting about it. While I was still researching the best and fastest way to get money out of New Zealand on Waitangi Day, the internet was stirring, and shortly after I decided on Western Union Joe tweeted that someone had donated the $450 needed to clear the debt with the DHS. I still don’t know everyone who donated, but I know there have also been offers of further help and the word put out to source things like furniture and manchester. One person even said that when they got a fridge they’d be receiving a lemon meringue pie. They don’t have the power on yet, or cleaning products, but they have some money for food and are discussing renting a van to pick up the furniture they’re able to get through donations (whether directing or using donated money). With a home base they’re now much more employable, as well as under much less stress, not having to spend so much on nightly accommodation or sleep in their car, able to get out of the heat during the day and generally just in a much healthier environment.
This is a fantastic outcome. There is absolutely no questioning that. It does raise questions, though, of what makes one person’s crisis go viral when another’s doesn’t. It’s a question that applies on multiple scales, right up to human rights abuses and genocides. There is simply so much suffering in the world that we will never hear about all of it, and the processes that make certain narratives make it into the wider consciousness while others fade away with barely a murmur are somewhat less than transparent.
That is why we can’t rely on charity to form a social safety net. Charity has always been plagued by “morality”, particularly in the name of religion, which can be a very toxic kind of help – or, in some cases, refused outright on the basis of who is asking for that help. LGBT people (like Joe and Ben and I) are especially vulnerable to this. That’s where government should come in. And that’s where austerity fails. Victoria is fighting that oh-so-familiar battle against “bloat” in the public service – cutting public employee numbers by 4200, something that perhaps contributed to the decision not to re-hire a contract employee who’d been injured, no matter what the doctors said. Welfare is stretched thin and no longer nearly as generous as it once was.* For every Joe Brown there are countless more who aren’t as lucky, and it’s highly probable that we’ll never know their names.
*A disclaimer here that I’m far more well-versed in the history of welfare in New Zealand than in Victoria, or Australia in general.