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Letters to the Editor - June 2012

29 May 2012

When empathy and fear collide

Love it or hate it – I call Docklands home.

I live, work and play here. In fact, the only reason I step out of my burb is to visit the cinemas or to attend Sunday mass. Docklands is beautiful! From afar, though it may seem all concrete and urban, it is ever welcoming and warm to those who look beyond the glass façade.

The press might spin negative yarns about the wind and cold but Docklands is an opportunity waiting to be explored and discovered and if all you notice is a skyline dotted with suspended cranes what you will not feel is the pulsating vibe of a community. I think the fact that we survive despite the diatribe and still thrive in the midst of the struggle is commendable.

I think I can safely call myself a “local” after three years of living here. I have my favourite barista, hairdresser, pharmacist, florist, grocer, building manager – and when we “locals” meet, there is always something to talk about. You know – gossip, chatter about this and that.

Over the last few weeks, a whisper about a “psycho in Docklands” (apologies for being politically incorrect), has grown into a loud conversation. I heard it first from the barista – who lived in the same building as this person. She sighed that the police were called in thrice in one week.

Another time, this person threw tennis balls from his balcony at the passing traffic including trams. Then there was intimidation and indecent exposure – stories came in thick and fast. I thought these incidents were exaggerated and felt it almost unreal that someone as aggressive as this person was staying amidst us, in what was otherwise a safe residential neighbourhood – that was until my recent encounter with him.

It was my birthday and celebrations with a few friends over dinner were in order. Calling it an early night on Thursday, I headed back home on tram 86 at 9.00pm.  Comfortably seated, I noticed a person with headphones plugged in and a happy disposition get into the tram at Spencer St Station. He was dancing and seeing him move to the rhythm, I mused, “Now that is a happy spirit with no inhibitions.”

As the tram entered LaTrobe St, the dancing got aggressive and the movements vigorous. Then suddenly, in a flash he was standing beside me asking me, “If I would like to come to his crib!” Gripped with fear, I looked for help and noticed that there were just three girls including myself on the tram. He got angrier and shouted, “I am speaking to you, look at me.”

With clenched teeth and frozen legs, I stared through the window seeking help, only to hear the tram driver announce, “Be careful, he is mental.” Needless to say, one of the girls jumped out at the first stop the tram halted but I couldn’t as he was blocking my way and I didn’t want to do anything to agitate him. He then turned his attention to the driver, telling him how he was going away on a bike and that his friend was a millionaire and so forth.

As soon he moved away, the tram driver was kind enough to make an unscheduled stop asking us to get out and both of us frantically jumped out and ran as fast as we could before disappearing into the darkness of NewQuay.  Those 20 seconds of insane fear – I have never experienced anything like that in my entire life!

Here is my dilemma – what does one do when empathy collides with fear? I agree completely and absolutely that people with mental illness should have the opportunity to assimilate and function in a society to reach their full potential as much as I do. They should have access to justice; participation in political and public life; education; employment; freedom from exploitation and violence, as well as freedom of movement. It is paramount that we practice the principle of “from exclusion to inclusion and equality”.

But what about my right to safety? What am I supposed to do if I was assaulted or even raped? These were the thoughts that raced through my head in that brief encounter, but they are as real to me as this person’s disability.

While Housing Choices Australia is to be lauded for its efforts to find people affordable housing in this new suburb, it cannot turn a blind eye towards the challenges such a situation would pose.

For example, there was no discussion amongst other residents as to how they were to handle or react when encountering a difficult situation with an agitated person. Most of us were not even made aware that people with disabilities were living among us and that we needed to be sympathetic and patient.

Name and address supplied

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