Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Shop 'til you stop

Lots of gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands in the media on the question of why people have stopped spending.

It's simple. We've got enough stuff.

I've spent the last decade staring at people in shopping malls. Every weekend I would see them. Droves. Carrying lots of bags. Just like the Christmas crowds used to be for the first three quarters of my life.

"What are they buying?", I'd wonder. I kept waiting for it to stop or slow down, thinking that it was a response to the cheap imports from China - a binge that would slow down to a trickle once people accumulated enough trinkets.

Then I started telling myself that it must be people who were moving into Sydney - the newspapers were full of stories about the people squashing into the city, driving up rents and house prices and so on.

But in the end it's even simpler than that. The shoppers were you and me and now we've got enough stuff.

My cupboards are full. I've got enough sheets, blankets, clothes, crockery, shoes, furniture, Xmas wrapping paper, socks, glasses and appliances to last me for many years.

At my local shopping mall the shops are almost exclusively full of clothes for young women. No supermarket. No food shops. Not much really. Just lots and lots and lot of clothes shops. And the clothes are crappily made. I wouldn't buy them, even allowing for my middle-aged cluelessness about what's fashionable at the moment. And yet, those shops are empty.

It had to happen sooner or later.

Martin Place on a Tuesday in August

I walked through the city last night after attending a talk at Parliament House.

Walking through Martin Place on my way to Wynyard I noticed the St Vinnies van serving food to a large number of people. At first I thought there must be a festival event on or something. As I got closer I saw that it was homeless people lining up for sandwiches and coffee. Yet they didn't look "homeless" (I worked with homeless people many years ago - I'm not making a fatuous or naive statement). Most of them looked like anyone else you'd see walking down the street on a Tuesday night. Maybe not Martin Place per se given its demographic, but certainly the sort of people you'd see at a suburban mall.

I tried not to stare, but my shock was visceral. So many people. It reminded me of the tent cities I'd read about in the US following the GFC. Why isn't this covered in the papers? Why do we keep reading about how great we've got it here in Australia? Great for whom?

And who are these people? Where the hell will they be sleeping tonight?

Walking towards Wynyard I passed a number of bars and swanky restaurants where well dressed people were dining and drinking cocktails looking like extras in a Sex and the City shoot. The juxtaposition really troubled me. Walking behind a couple of young women in suits teetering from one bar to another on 6 inch heels I wondered whether they'd even seen the van, the hungry people, the scattered belongings on the ground. I didn't judge them though. What does one know really about homelessness when one is well insulated from the problem?

Today I notice the Mission Australia press release about a $2.7m project that will provide housing and support for 70 of the neediest people. Peanuts. Our New Years Eve fireworks usually cost twice that. The stupid Breakfast on the Bridge that inconveniences thousands of motorists and startles the poor cows (literal) - who are brought in as props - costs half that.

Today I'm still haunted by the image. So many people getting their nightly meal from a St Vinnies van on a cold Tuesday night. Yet as an issue it seems to be wallpaper. Like Patrick McGorrie's mental health issue prior to his prominence, it's not sexy. Intractable. A bit anxiety provoking - there but for the love of God and all that...

That's all. Not a great post. But I just had to write it down to try get the image out of my head. We'll see how that goes.

Photo: Sweet One