This is a rant. And a plea for the masses to remember that we all share a common humanity and the old adage of ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’ should really get more airtime.
Moving to to the city, one thing I did not anticipate was just how many homeless people there would be around. This bothers me, not because they are there, but because I am not a dick and the fact that one of the richest countries in the wold allows its citizens to sleep on a pavement in the cold, sickens me. What bothers me more, is the way we treat them. Most of us are dismissive and pretend we don’t see them or hear them.
Kindness costs nothing. They may be homeless, but they are still people. Stop ignoring them when they speak to you. Yes, they ask if you have any spare change. Of course they do, they have none or they probably wouldn’t choose to live in their sleeping bag outside the train station.
Put yourself in their shoes: you are humiliated, cold, frightened and so alone that you have no one to call to take you home and give you somewhere to sleep. You have no choice but to ask a stranger for money. This could, theoretically, happen to any one of us. I would like to think that if it happened to me, someone would show me kindness. The people you walk past have nothing, the very least we can give them is acknowledgement. Do not continue to strip away their dignity by refusing to even show that you have heard them speak to you. Poverty is not a form of leprosy. You do not have to give them a wide berth, crossing the road to avoid them or pretend to be on your phone to prevent conversation. A series of unfortunate events, and any one of us could end up poor and desperate. Financial poverty does not have to equate to complete emotional poverty. In this instance, your apathy is a cruelty.
I never have change, I always answer with a ‘no, I’m really sorry’. It’s not even usually a lie (contactless debit cards are magical and terrifying). This doesn’t result in my being accosted. In fact, I usually get a ‘thank you, have a nice day’. And because I live in the North, there is usually a ‘love’ tagged on the end.
It’s true, you could put your head down and pretend you didn’t notice. It avoids the embarrassment of not giving them the £1.50 you know you have in your pocket. You could, however, answer that person. Tell them you have no change using your words. Don’t just shake your head and speed ahead. Look them in the eye. If you’re feeling particularly humane and do have that spare £1.50, buy a cup of tea or a bag of crisps. Boots or Tesco do cheap ham sandwiches – buy one, give it to someone who could do with a ham sandwich. But at the very least, acknowledge this person’s existence and respond. Wish them well in return. Buy the Big Issue (sometimes, it isn’t entirely crap). Have a conversation with the person you buy it from. Just a two minuter about the weather. We’re British – irrelevant small talk for nothing other than self affirmation is what we excel at. It’s just as important to expand this skill to a Big Issue seller as it is to the potential business associate that you met over slimy canapés or your boyfriend’s great aunt Tessa.
Homeless people will not mug you or attack you or rape you or whack you over the head with a dustbin lid and then all steal your money to buy crack. Some will, because people are shit. But that person is not shit because they are homeless, that is just who they are as a person and would be as shit if they were a lawyer or a plumber or a builder or (based on recent events) a well know Hollywood movie producer who strongly resembles a bulldog. Stereotyping homeless people this way is as bad as assuming someone is violent because they are a ‘youth’.
One-night last month, I was walking home from work late, it was dark, and a drunk group of men started cat-calling and then following me. I couldn’t shake them and their comments started to get increasingly threatening. I was about to call the Police (or my mum who would have told my dad to call the police) when I spotted Simon, a nice man that I buy a cup of tea for if I walk past him on the way from work when I cross the bridge. He’s well beyond the six-foot mark, has an impressive beard with plaits in it and a dog who occasionally (inexplicably) wears a trilby. Simon noticed me, noticed the men, stood up and physically blocked the pavement to prevent them going any further. He told me to go on home, he’d make sure I was ok. He did nothing violent, just blocked their path. When I checked back just as I was about to round the corner, the men we’re filing back into the bar they were stood outside of when I first shuffled past and caught their attention. I went home, safe and sound. When I passed Simon the next morning, and gave him the remainder of my banana bread, I thanked him. He shrugged and said ‘of course, I could see you were scared.’ Then he went back to sleep.
My point, rambling and incoherent as it may be, is to imagine you had to sleep on a bridge and had to accept exceedingly sub-par banana bread from strangers who cannot bake. That, in itself is pretty crappy. So please, next time you walk past someone sleeping rough and they say something to you, acknowledge them, apologise for having no cash, say good morning and wish them well. This kindness will cost you nothing.