IAN WEBSTER. Of minds imprisoned.

Feb 26, 2019

Beyond the image of the vagabond and the impaired bodies and minds of homeless people there are untapped veins of intellect and potential; this is where our focus should be.

“The homeless are our most important dreamers, prophets and poets for they challenge our apathy….” (Sydney from Below, McCarthy F, Matthew Talbot Hostel)

I overheard two men as I arrived at the night shelter in Woolloomooloo. One pointed to a notice on wall. They were discussing next week’s philosophy class. In the clinic waiting area there was a buzz of conversation, unusual in this environment. It was about next week’s class. It seemed so incongruous that homeless men were discussing philosophy.

Each week, these – never listened to – men explored philosophical ideas with a tutor. They questioned, put their views and they listened to each other. Their opinions counted. Their personhood and rights were reinforced.

Dave (a pseudonym)

Instead of bursting into the clinic and striding around, Dave sat down and slapped a book on the desk, “What do you think of that?” he said.

There was page after page of diagrams and algebraic symbols and so I asked him whether he had been to university. “Why did you ask that?” He said he had taught himself science, psychology and sociology. The book was a paperback about relativity which he explained pretty well from my perspective. Testing him further, I asked who was the first sociologist? When I mentioned Marx – Karl Marx, he said, he was a political economist. On the mark, again, I should say.

He then asked me whether I had heard of Stephen Hawking. Then followed a discussion about Hawking’s contribution to theoretical physics. At the next visit, he brought me an article about Stephen Hawking and I gave him one from the New Scientist.

Two weeks later another book was produced, “The Mind: The Oxford Companion”; it had cost him $70. Further books appeared – art treasures in Moscow and European galleries as well as an encyclopaedia of astronomy. These and other books and his battered guitar were left with us for safe keeping. In all ten books were left at the clinic. He said he had a repository of books somewhere else.

This man’s life was one of inner city wandering where he was a recognisable identity. At Christmas, his photograph graced the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald – playing chess on the giant chess board in Hyde Park.

He explained his problems.

His mother and father were alcoholics. At birth he had a deformed foot and a bowel problem. (The Camperdown Children’s Hospital notes record he had Hirshbrung’s disease. Other hospital notes recorded admissions to psychiatric hospitals.) He said his early medical problems required innumerable operations keeping him for long periods in the Children’s Hospital. He didn’t go to school, and had no childhood friends.

“I was unable to form a loving relationship with anyone; and never had any self-esteem.”

Over several years we enjoyed our conversations with this thoughtful man. He didn’t seem to be mentally ill in the way we understood mental illness – he had much insight. He rejected psychiatric treatment and medications but from time to time he would be given a Valium tablet to lessen his agitation. Others will have seen him wandering the streets of Sydney, pre-occupied, and sometimes strumming a guitar.

He stopped visiting and we lost track of him.

Years later, during a break in an evening seminar at Westmead Hospital in western Sydney, I saw a grey head at the far end of the cafeteria. It looked familiar. It was Dave. We recalled our meetings at the Matthew Talbot Hostel. “…we don’t see you these days?” “It’s too dangerous”, he said.

It was late in the evening and I asked the night janitor about him. Dave was often around the hospital. The night orderlies knew him well. On bleak winter nights, he would be allowed to bed down, out of sight, behind the foyer doors. The last and next time I saw him was outside Liverpool Hospital in south western Sydney. Loaded with plastic bags – all his possessions – “Hullo mate”, is about all I could get. Quickly off – hunched and foraging for cigarettes.

I have often wondered about Dave’s interest in Hawking. Hawking’s mind was imprisoned by motor neurone disease but his intellect reached to the cosmos; Dave had an inquiring mind constrained by childhood deprivation, lack of love, on-going social exclusion and mental distress.

Clemente Course in the Humanities

That was 25 years ago when philosophy for the homeless was new to me.

Earl Shorris, writer and social critic, while researching poverty in the US in 1995, conceived the idea of the “Clemente Course in the Humanities”. His idea was that by studying the humanities, disadvantaged and homeless people, could gain insights and skills to build their capacity to control their lives and to re-engage with their communities.

The approach, based on small group learning and Socratic principles, stands in contrast to the usual social and health ‘top down’ interventions applied to disadvantaged and homeless people.

At a workshop in Sydney in 2003, Earl Shorris, visiting Australia, explained the thinking behind the Clemente program. Later, in 2009, he described the Clemente program as “an international university for the poor”. It was being run in 10 languages and in vastly different environments – from refugee camps in Darfur and Chad, to Mexico and other countries. At that time, 10,000 students across the world had enrolled. Shorris believed passionately that everyone deserved to have excellent teachers, “the best education for the best, is the best education for all”. He died in 2012.

From a small start, of eight students at the Vincentian Village, Darlinghurst, Sydney in 2003, a course in the humanities of one subject per semester has since been run by a consortium – the Australian Catholic University (ACU), St. Vincent’s de Paul Society, Mission Australia and the Smith Family. It is accredited by the ACU. Students select from a pool of subjects which on the completion of four subjects can lead to a Certificate in Liberal Studies awarded by the ACU. There is no cost to the students.

Catalyst-Clemente Australia now extends from Hobart to Toowoomba, from inner Sydney to Perth. One thousand students have enrolled, 300 have completed the course and 100 have gone on to further education. Most of these students have had prolonged periods of homelessness, high rates of mental and physical impairments and the ever-present self-medication with alcohol and drugs. They had all missed the ‘education bus’, a major factor in their social predicaments.

One student said of his life:

“I come from a pretty dark place and you know coming out of rehab back in 2008 I did first attempt this, Indigenous People in 2008, but I wasn’t quite ready and I knew that that was always there and I came back to it in 2009 and it was sort of like the beginning of changing, of crawling out of the dark hole that I was in.” (Neo) (Quote, ARC Grant Report, 2012)

A significant event for the students is to be given an ID card by the university. It is the first time they have felt as a person of value and potential.

Suzanne wrote of being a student:

“I have learnt to trust people a lot more…. It’s really exciting to see people respond, some of whom I would have been afraid of six months ago… Right now I am the most happy I have been for a long time. No one can tell I have a serious mental illness…. I can kiss mental illness goodbye really. I am swapping it for an Arts Degree. I am a student first and foremost. It’s like having a job.” (Engaging the Nation, Clemente Australia – 10 years on.)

So many services which deal with poor people, those with major impairments and the homeless, see the task as treating the deficits. The professionals can fix their problems!

But the process of enabled learning and bringing out the strengths and potential in individuals has the capacity, as shown in the Catalyst-Clemente program, for individuals to develop new views of themselves and their capabilities. More effective, in my opinion, than much of the current job training, job assessment and punishing sanction-based social policy of contemporary Australia.

Ian Webster AO, Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine  UNSW,works in a free clinic for homeless people.

Associate Professor Peter Howard, Australian Catholic University advised on the current status of the Catalyst-Clemente Australia program.

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