Sitting in traffic yesterday afternoon I saw no fewer than ten people walk past a guy sitting on the street as if they hadn't seen him. One perhaps could have been a mistake, but when you take into consideration the fact that he was asking 'any spare change please?' loud enough for me to hear in my car, I think it's fair to assume that these people knew exactly what they were doing. It is a story that we hear all of the time in London, it's a story that I have helped to write and one that I read every day.
And it's almost understandable, our immunity to it. Between 2015 and 2016 it was estimated that 8000 people were sleeping rough and more than that were sitting on the streets every day asking for money. I don't remember the last time that I went ANYWHERE in London where I didn't see at least one person. On the average trip I maybe see five. When I'm in central London, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Covent Garden, it's more. And whilst that is of course a huge worry, the thing that is proving most concerning of all of, is our reaction to it.
People don't choose to live on the streets, not often. Normally this happens to people after something has gone really wrong in their life, maybe they've got ill, maybe they've lost their job, their house, maybe their partner left them or they got caught up in an addiction of some kind. The perception is of course that everyone on the streets is there because of their own doing, that they're drunks and drug addicts who don't deserve help. But that's just not the case. (And even if it were, who are we to say that we won't help them?).
Take Gary for example. A couple of years ago Alex and I were walking down High Street Kensington quite late at night when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a man in a sleeping bag using the light from the window display in an electrical shop to read a book. He didn't look up as we walked by, he didn't ask for money or a cigarette, he just kept reading his book. I don't know what it was but something about that really affected me. This man was not what I expected at all, he was not what I thought of when I thought of homelessness and that tiny action nearly moved me to tears: could you imagine not having the ability to do something so simple as to read a book?
I couldn't just walk by. Instead I diverted course and went to the cash machine where I took out £50. Was that enough for a bed for the night? This was a lot of money, taken out of my savings, but this man clearly needed it so much more than I did. I went back to the man and offered him the money, he was shocked and refused to take it. We fought, I won and eventually even persuaded him to let me do a grocery shop in Waitrose for him. I asked if there was anything that he fancied, he told me that he 'had a real hankering for a scotch egg' and I spent the next twenty minutes filling my basket with as many non perishable, light objects that I could. I also raided the deli area of all of their scotch eggs.
We went back to the man, Gary, and sat with him as he ate. I think we probably stayed there for three hours in total. We heard his story: how he had suffered a mental breakdown following a battle with depression and after he lost his job, his wife had left and taken his children. With nowhere to go, he moved to the streets. Within a few months he started noticing a pain in his stomach and was coughing up blood, a trip to hospital told him that he had stomach cancer. Unfortunately, it was untreatable and, since there no beds available for him to stay, he was once again moved out onto the streets. This is when we had met him. A dying man who had fallen through the cracks. A father forced to sleep round the back of the cinema where they store the popcorn because it was warm. A human being forced to sleep on London's filthy streets because he literally had nowhere to go.
This broke me. Leaving that night was hard and in the years that have followed I have never forgotten Gary. I did call The Samaritans the next day who promised they would track him down and take care of him (if you can provide them with the whereabouts and name of a homeless person they will go and pick them up) but that did little to set my mind at ease, really, because Gary's story I realised, although awful, was not just his. This was a tale that would be told by so many, if only we stopped to listen to it.
Since our night with Gary my eyes have been opened to the homelessness problem in London like they weren't before. I'm ashamed to say that I don't actively do enough but I do at least now see the problem and do what I can, when I can. In the grand scheme of my life, what is £10 to me? A packet of fags? (Not even...). An extravagant lunch? One quarter of a new pair of jeans from Topshop? But to someone like Gary, that's a bed for the night. Sure, I can't afford to give £10 to the 8000+ homeless people in London or I'd be wanted by the police as the money that I would have been handing out would certainly not have been mine, but even by doing it just the once, I am making a difference to one person. A positive difference to another human being, who really, really needs it.
Results found by the website Streets of London showed that, on average, a homeless person dies at just 47 years old, compared to the 81 years that the average UK citizen gets. They also discovered that a homeless rough sleeper is 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person. 35 times!!!! Shockingly it was also found that two thirds of rough sleepers said that they had been insulted by a member of the public and one in ten had been urinated on. Homeless people are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the general public and are 47 times more likely to be a victim of theft.
So people are not only ignoring these people, they're actively being cruel. They're urinating on them. They're stealing from them. They're abusing them. And that's leading these people to suicide, if they haven't already been killed by the very real dangers of living on the streets. How we can do this to one another is beyond me, it really is. Now I know that you will be reading this, like me, thinking that these findings are horrific, that you would never do something like that, that it is disgusting and that something needs to be done. But I also suspect that, like me, you have been guilty of walking past a person in need too. Perhaps, like I do, you'll smile quickly, mouth an apology and be on your way. Perhaps you'll do as the people that I saw yesterday afternoon did that inspired this piece and walk on by as if you hadn't seen them. At this point it doesn't matter, none of us are doing enough.
With the election tomorrow the last thing that I want to do is blame any government for this problem or bring politics into it, the fact that it is happening on our own doorsteps in a wealthy country, to our own people is beyond belief, beyond comprehension even. I don't know where exactly the fault lies here, but we can all agree that it is a massive failing by a lot of people. Long term this is a problem that needs to be solved by the Government, whoever they may turn out to be tomorrow, but short term this is something that we can do something about, even if the difference is tiny.
We can't get these guys off the streets right now - I don't know where we'd even start. But we can start doing our bit to make their time there better. Are we really in such a rush that we can't stop for two minutes to talk to someone and see if they are OK? Are we really so broke that we can't afford to nip into Sainsbury's and buy someone a £3 meal deal? Are we really so above making a tiny bit of time for another person? Please don't underestimate how important your time is to someone who is in this position, every day we take for granted how lucky we are just to have a roof over our heads, I don't want you to feel guilty for that, but I think we should at least try to remember it.