‘Why do we need to help?’
I’m sitting at a cafe, eavesdropping while pretending to read the newspaper. The young girl, who looks about seven, has posed this question to her mum about the homeless.
I dare a glance. The mum is fretting; her eyes dart about to see if anyone is demonstrably paying attention. I feel her gaze rest on me, but I’m already engrossed in the paper again.
‘Because…’ she falters. ‘Can we talk about this when we’re back home?’
‘Why Mummy? I want to know now.’
The mum sighs.
‘Mummy? Why do we need to help homeless people? I mean, they must’ve had a home. And if they just left it, well, I think that’s silly. Don’t you?’
‘Ally, people leave their homes for all types of reasons. Mostly because they’re not safe in their home.’
‘Not safe in their home? Why ever would they not be safe in their own home?
‘Finish your hot chocolate, please.’
A tear slips down my cheek. It’s a contentious issue and I don’t envy this poor mother. Her daughter is clearly precocious and clever, and wants answers to all the questions in life. But parenting is all about balance. Providing age appropriate responses and shielding them from as much ugliness as possible.
And the root cause of homelessness is often ugly.
This young girl has no concept of why people flee their home environment. And nor should she. She’s obviously adored and cherished and protected.
I push my chair backwards and stand. As I move past their table I lock eyes with the mum and smile at her.
‘Please,’ I say. ‘Let me buy your morning tea?’
‘Thank you, but that’s not necessary.’ The mum is shaking her head fiercely.
‘I insist. And…’ I crouch down to meet Ally’s wide brown eyes. ‘Ally is it? Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your chat with your mummy.’ I throw a guilty look at the mum who smiles benignly.
Still crouching, I say, ‘Some people don’t have a nice mummy and daddy like you obviously do. You’re lucky. Give your mummy lots of hugs and kisses.’ I pat her hand gently, and as I do, her mother notices the red scars and burn marks on my hands and wrists.
She gasps quietly. Then nods and meets my eyes. I shrug as she whispers, ‘I’m sorry.’