On Tuesday night I was sitting at the pub with Alex and a man arrived, trying to sell the Big Issue to the customers sitting outside, pleading for any of us to give him some money. Everyone there ignored him totally and depressingly, wouldn't make eye contact with me when I gave him my spare change. Nor would they look at me when I said loudly to no one in particular, how depressing it was that a pub full of people could be so comfortable ignoring something like that.
Although depressing, this was hardly surprising. I was surrounded by my people: cold, hard Londoners after all. There isn't much we actually SEE anymore, let alone bat an eyelid at and so by 8pm, when the umpteenth homeless person comes up to us asking for money, most of us have developed a system of not allowing ourselves to acknowledge them, in order to deprive ourselves of the guilt that we knew would come if we were to engage.
And whilst I do understand it, more than that, I bloody hate it. But there is more to it than those of us who simply don't see men like this anymore, there are those out there actively avoiding them, basing their wankiness on the argument that by giving people on the streets money, you are only subsiding their drug habits. *I literally scoff when I hear this*.
a) What a ridiculous stereotype, there are plenty of heartbreaking reasons that people end up on the streets:
- Mental health issues; depression, PTSD etc.
- Unhappiness at home, particularly for teens and kids.
b) Even if this is the case, what business is it of yours? If it makes their impossible life a tiny bit easier, then who are you to take that chance at rest bite away from them?
What of course needs to be remembered, is that the man selling me the Big Issue the other night, would NOT be doing that, begging strangers, unless he were anything other than desperate.
I am well aware that as a Londoner I don't do even close to enough, I see countless homeless people every day and I'll be the first to admit that I am not stopping enough or giving nearly enough, but I plan on changing that, and I'm bringing you with me.
One of the most memorable nights of my life was when Alex and I met a man living on High Street Kensington and ended up sitting with him for three hours as he ate and told us about his life. We'd been walking home from somewhere and I had noticed that he was reading a book, which for some reason made me happy and very sad at the same time. We walked past him (as only a Londoner could) but something made me turn back, I span Alex round and we went to ask if he was okay, did he want anything from the supermarket? Was he hungry?
As it transpired, he was, in his own words he had a 'real hankering for scotch eggs' which I thought was rather fabulous, so Alex and I popped into Waitrose and raided the deli, we cleaned them out of scotch eggs and filled another couple of carrier bags with fruit, long lasting food and toiletries. We went back out and chatted with him, Gary, for ages. We heard about his stomach cancer, how he had been let down by the NHS and how ultimately his mental health issues culminated in a breakdown which saw his wife leave him and the loss of his house.
I never saw Gary again, I called the Sammaritans the next day who told me that they would pick him up (yippee) and I hope the fact that I haven't seen him, despite looking for him for two years, means that they were able to help him get back on his feet.
And although this memory causes a weird sensation of both happiness and sadness in me, more than that I learned a lot that night, and so for his time, I am very grateful.
I'm sure he was grateful for the food, and for the bit of money that we left him, but as much as anything I think it was the human interaction and kindness that meant the most to all of us. And really, that's not much to ask is it?
So here's what we are going to do, city dwellers in particular:
- If you see someone outside a shop, while you are in there grab something for them too. A sandwich, a bottle of water, a banana, a muffin, whatever it is, it will be appreciated.
- If you notice someone on your way home or way out for dinner, make a note of it. You may make too much food, or not be hungry for everything you have been served, if this is the case, why not take it out for them?
- On Monday morning, go to an ATM and take out £10 and promise yourself that by Sunday that money will have gone to someone who really needs it. Yes, your money situation may be tight this month, but think would someone else can do with that money. For you, it's two fewer pints. One fewer packet of cigarettes. It's walking to work tomorrow rather than driving. And for someone else? It could be a roof over their head for a cold night, it's something warm to eat.
They're not the biggest sacrifices in the scheme of things for us to make, but the differences little changes make are massive. It's a step closer to a kinder world.
The quote that changed everything for me was this: "You can't help everyone, so you either help someone or no one" - and you can be the only one to make that decision.
(If you do see someone living rough, stop to ask them their name, where they are sleeping and where they spend their days, when you get home call a local charity, they are trying their best to help and they need people like us to gather this information so that they can do their jobs well).