Killed in the Square

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
8th December 2006

Tagged: alcohol death homelessness

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This week in our Square just outside St Andrew's House a man was killed. He was twenty-three years old. He was well known to some of our Cathedral staff and congregation.

The details are not yet public. It is idle to speculate or to listen to rumours about how it happened or why. But it does bring home to us the power of evil in our city and the plight of so many vulnerable people, especially the homeless.

His violent end stands in stark contrast to the message of life that we seek to preach in this place. His brutal death is poignantly tragic as we approach the celebrations of the birth of our Lord and Saviour.

Most of the homeless around us are addicted to some substance, usually alcohol. But that is often one of the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause. They usually come from distressing circumstances of family breakdown. They have often endured terrible psychiatric episodes. They have made unwise life skill choices that have given them very few resources to deal with their long-term problems.

The spiral downwards through addiction into destitute hopelessness is a sad and tragic journey. There is little point telling them to “pull up their socks”, “get out of bed”, “get a job”. They have no socks, they have no bed, and they do not have the emotional, physical or social energy to re-enter the workforce. By the time they reach the streets the system of our society has beaten them.

All this is our fault as well as theirs. They may make unwise decisions, but it is our society that has put enormous pressure on people and failed to provide proper safety nets for those in difficulty.

Just as we must not blame them for everything, we must not blame our society for everything as if there are no safety nets. The social welfare provisions of our society, both government and voluntary, are enormous. Yet manifestly there is something wrong when there are so many living on the streets in such abject poverty and hopelessness.

Nobody can be happy to know that a man of just twenty-three years spent three of them living on the streets only to finish his earthly life by violence in our Cathedral Square.

Short-term relief; food, clothing and emergency housing is widely available around our city. The Cathedral is only one of many places where they are given basic provisions to survive. Unfortunately providing for their immediate needs tends to create a dependency that holds them in their poverty. Yet denying a starving, addicted, helpless person is unconscionable.

Giving money is counterproductive as it nearly always feeds the addiction and adds to the problem rather than helping the person. We do ask those who come to the Cathedral not to give money to those who beg. There is ample provisions made for them, and they know where to access the food and shelter that they need.

Selling them alcohol is obscene, yet there is no shortage of watering holes that are happy to take their money even though it is manifestly destroying their health, minds and lives. It is hard to see any real moral difference between such publicans and drug pushers. There must come a point where the individual's right to drink whatever he wishes is countered by the obvious helpless self harm that he is inflicting.

In developing policies to help these people we do not want to attract drunkenness and violence into our precinct. We will not allow people under the influence of drugs or alcohol to engage in anti-social behaviour on the square or in the Cathedral, but will call upon security and police protection for our members and the public.

Many of our staff and members care for these people. The Cathedral provides a full time staff member, Mathew Teakle, whose ministry is to the needy of the city. His role is not limited to street people, but he certainly spends a good deal of time caring for them personally.

But this whole letter of mine has one basic fault, which is very common in our society and in ourselves. Finding the homeless unsociable, even threatening—finding ourselves impotent to help—we group them as a whole, avert our eyes from ever engaging with theirs and treat them as non-persons.

The man who was killed in the square was a person—made in the image of God. Somewhere he had a father and a mother. He was part of our humanity whom God so loved as to send his one and only Son to die. A young man was not killed in our square. Mitch was killed in our square. His name was Mitchell.