Dr Tony Fernando frequently sees patients who are struggling with homelessness in his psychiatry practice.
“The most common reason I see for people being homeless is severe mental illness. That and a lack of resources. People often don’t have social support – their family is away or they don’t live close. And then a lot of people just don’t know where they can go to for help – they don’t know that there are places where they can get food, or that they can get emergency funding from WINZ. “
Many Kiwis are finding it hard to balance budgets, and are having to make difficult decisions about what they can go without. Tony says; “Life is increasingly difficult for everyone – I treat a student who gets $250 a week to live on, and $150 of that goes towards rent, which leaves only $100 for food and petrol. If something goes wrong, then that’s it. He doesn’t eat!
A lot of people are living on a knife’s edge balance – and these are people with families, with intact mental health and intellect. And then if you add in mental illness, isolation – it’s a very slippery slope into homelessness. ”
Together with practising as a psychiatrist and teaching at the University of Auckland Medical School, Tony is also completing a PhD on compassion in medicine. “I consider compassion and connectedness to be like oxygen. It’s not optional. Our species need compassion for survival. Our brains are wired to care for each other, and our brain rewards us when we help”.
Tony knows from personal experience just how powerful it can be to help someone in need. “Last Christmas, I was at the supermarket and there was a young family in line in front of me. And you could just tell that they were struggling. It was a young father with four young kids in tow, and I could just tell they were finding it hard to make ends meet.
They were buying nappies, the cheap 95 cent bread, sugar, potatoes, milk. And I overheard the father say to the checkout guy “If this goes beyond $100, just stop”. And then it went over and the poor man was trying to decide what not to buy – but it was all essential. It’s not like he was buying nice wine, or lollies, or chips –it was all essential stuff for his family.
So I told the cash register guy “I’ll pay for this”. And the father said “No!” and I was like, “No it’s fine, I’ll take care of it”, and he said “Well just pay for the extra $27” and I said “No I’ll take care of this”.
And I’ve kept that receipt in my wallet ever since. It’s a reminder for me that once in a while we can make someone’s life a little bit easier. That $127 receipt – If I quantified the happiness I’ve had thinking about it, it would be over $1000. It’s given me so much joy just to feel like I can make a little bit of difference”.
Dr Tony Fernando is sleeping rough at this year’s Lifewise Big Sleepout. Please donate to Tony’s night on the streets today and help get a vulnerable homeless person into a home.