“Keep looking up…”

She’s already been humbled and now, as a new homeless person, she’s about to  be humiliated. Living in the streets she has no money and so tries her luck at the nearest shop.

“I’m homeless today – can you give me a dollar for a coffee?”

The answer judging by her swift exit is clearly no. She’s back on the street again no better off. So she sits on her cardboard and tries her luck with commuters. They hurry past. What hurts says this distressed woman in her late fifties, is that they don’t even acknowledge her. It’s as if she didn‘t  exist.

Then, when she’s looking, pleading with the passing parade of  the indifferent, a woman  stops, shoves a $50 note in her hand and says  “Keep looking up” before  disappearing into the crowd. The homeless one now has a fortune when just a few hours ago nobody would give her ten cents.

But it’s not the money that counts, it’s the fact that somebody stopped and cared enough to give, to urge her to stay positive. In other words, to treat her like a human not some city detritus. In its own way this kindness broke her and she sobbed uncontrollably.

Yet though this situation was real, it was an incident born out of a reality TV experiment in which five reasonably high profile personalities were put into the position of being homeless for five days. The next week they were matched with people who were genuinely homeless. For the personalities, these were guilt-stricken ghastly moments when they faced the dangers of living rough without any  safety net. All of this and more screened on SBS, Australia’s  multi-ethnic public broadcaster, in a series called  Filthy Rich and Homeless.

An hour earlier and perhaps by coincidence,  Oz’s  more established but equally inventive public broadcaster the ABC,  ran a  segment with the same theme  of  giving.  This was no  reportage and it featured that  invisible demographic – the eighties and nineties. It was such a  simple idea but one so practical we nearly fell off our armchairs.

What the residents of an aged care facility in the Blue Mountains of Sydney’s West did was to  prepare meals for the homeless.They peeled spuds, made bread puddings and other meals – all  without a recipe in sight because, as one care worker put it, they’d been doing this for decades.  When the meals were ready they met and served, for the first time, the people they’d been cooking for.

“It’s unreal – you don’t know what it’s like to be treated like this” said one of the homeless diners, coming back for another helping.

The elderly cooks were delighted  too  – they’d socialised with people they’d never normally meet and done it for a good reason – to help out.

“It’s wonderful to be doing something for somebody else” said one of the elderly women.  “Because we don’t do much around here.”

In their  different ways both programmes illustrated the plight of  the homeless; both informed as they entertained.

And so we stayed tuned into the ABC and discovered yet another gem called Brush with Fame. It’s a series which fuses the art of portraiture with the art of the interviewer.

Colourful as his paintings and with an undeniable energy, Vietnamese artist and comedian Anh Do paints as he interviews and his subjects tell him so much, possibly because Ahn is so relaxed and so clearly absorbed in both the portrait and the subject’s life.

And these range from Carrie Bickmore, the host of the Australian series ‘The Project,’ to surgeon and human rights activist Munjed Al Murderis, who fled from his home in Iraq after the US invasion.

Interviewers are often cautious when roles are reversed because they know the traps as well as the tricks of the trade, but Bickmore was relaxed even while she told her story – some of it  dealing with personal loss.

What shone through with Munjed was his determination and his optimism. After spells in  detention camps and then prison, he qualified as a doctor (again) in Oz. Then, because of the numerous amputees he’d seen in Iraq, he went on to pioneer and lead a team who are now world leaders in developing prosthetic limbs.

SBS and ABC are public broadcasters but with a difference. SBS serves Australia’s multi-cultural population and runs commercials. ABC is commercial-free. But to a greater or lesser extent their cultures are homes to bold ideas which would be homeless in a thoroughly  commercialised TV culture. And the country which best characterises that is… New Zealand.

Share this:
Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.