I started working for a charity last year that is focussed on seeing homelessness eradicated.
Whilst I have always been aware of homelessness and have been involved with charities that work with homeless or deeply impoverished people, I have lived a life that has come nowhere near what people suffer when their choices and resources are so diminished that they have to live on the street.
I walk past someone who is sleeping on the street, see them in the news or depicted in films, hear stories about the injustices and abuse that have led people to the lowest of lows, and think that I am so far away from them that we have nothing in common.
It creates a sense of distance and separateness that means I don’t stop on the street when I see someone begging or just clearly in need, because my mind has these thoughts:
- They’re asking for money and I don’t think that’s what I should give them, or more often than not I don’t have cash anyway
- I don’t have anything alternative on me to give them, and I don’t have time to get something
- What if I did take some time to get them some food or drink but then they don’t want it? It will be embarrassing for them and me (mostly me).
- I could ask them what they would like, but what if they ask for something I don’t want to give them, like money or alcohol?
- If I do speak to them, what do I say? I don’t want them to feel patronised or talked down to.
- What if they touch me? Am I going to be OK with that? I have to be, but I know my tendency to worry about cleanliness will kick in and I would hate for them to see that.
- What if they do something socially unexpected, like shout or say weird things? How will I handle that?
All these internal questions buzz around and I have walked past them and done nothing. On to the next thing. And as I walk on and shift back into what I was doing and where I was going before I saw the person, I explain away my ‘not stopping’ with these questions: when do I ever speak to strangers on the street? If a businessman was sat on a bench, would I go over to him and ask if there is anything he needs? Or join an unsuspecting pair of girls chatting and introduce myself? No, so why is this any different?
It’s different because they have asked for help. They may have spoken out and asked for money, or they have a sign in front of them asking for help. Even if they haven’t done either of these things, they have sat themselves on a busy street, where they know people will see them, in their unwashed and uncared for state. They have shown their vulnerability and shame to others. To people they know will judge them. They are asking for help.
I was a big fan of Michael Jackson when I was young and I can sing ‘Man in the mirror’ word for word. It describes what I am writing here – I’m looking at the woman in the mirror and realising that I want to make a change. I want to be a person that stops. That recognises that for all our differences, we are fundamentally the same because we are human. Our life experiences might be vastly different, but there will be things we can connect on, even if it’s just that at that moment we are currently standing under the same sky and experiencing the same weather. As we Brits know, one can always talk about the weather.
My job is forcing me to learn a lot about homelessness, its causes, its victims, its heroes, its injustices, its solutions, its despair and its hope. I am challenged on so many levels by my ignorance, my privilege, my worldview, the actions and prejudices of my ancestors (and me), the construct of my life that leaves no space for helping people outside of my social circle.
Just by educating myself and being open to understanding more about the problem of homelessness, I am exposing myself to knowledge that is causing me to want to change. I am convicted. I am inspired. I am convinced that I can approach a person on the street that is asking for help, and say ‘Hello. What do you need? Can I help?’
I’ll let you know how I get on.