Let’s call him Jack. You pass him most days, propped up against the wall, under the railway bridge. Sitting in a heap of cardboard, plastic sheeting and sleeping bags, encircled by empty takeaway boxes. If he’s awake, he might be tending an upended flat cap, sprinkled with loose change. Perhaps he’s holding it out to you as your eye catches his.
Damn! It’s happened again.
You promised yourself not to let his eye catch yours because however bad you feel when you look away from him, you feel even worse when you look towards him. Jack is a test. His dishevelled presence untidies our life. He’s asking for small change while inadvertently asking us about who we think we are.
Whatever the collective noun for feelings is, they are collecting inside. Is it pity? (‘Poor guy.’) Anger? (‘Sort your bloody life out!’). Despair (‘How is this happening in one of the world’s richest countries?’) or just a sadness we can’t quite name.
Offloading our loose coins into his hat, won’t affect our cashflow. ‘Give him the money,’ says a voice. ‘He’ll waste it,’ says another. In that split moment, what do we do?
First, don’t look away. Look at Jack as Jack looks at you. Smile. Say hello. Got a moment? Ask him how he’s doing. Was it cold last night? Something as simple as a smile is a way of recognising Jack’s humanity, the one we all share. And a miniature protest against the idea that a rough sleeper should be treated roughly. That he or she should not be seen.
Second, as you head off, remind yourself that while almost everything needs fixing almost nothing can be fixed instantly. Otherwise, someone would have done it. Life’s complicated.
Like most rough sleepers in the UK Jack will be in touch with social workers who know if he’s physically or mentally unwell, if he has an addiction to drink or drugs. They’ll know how attached he is to street life, that the longer someone lives out, the more difficult it is to come in. But they’ll also know where he can find warm, secure accommodation if he decides it’s time for a change. Where he can find medical help or legal support or benefits advice or counseling. Jack will know too.
Third, if you didn’t hand Jack your loose change, it’s not a test of your humanity and you didn’t fail. While most people who work with rough sleepers advise against giving cash, everyone agrees the best move is to alert the people who can offer professional support. In the UK that’s through StreetLink.
Still, that potpourri of emotions – wouldn’t we want a helping hand if we were down and out ? What’s compassion if it’s not for acting on? Fair point, but the best response is not always the first response. Sometimes the spontaneous act is more about dealing with ourselves than dealing with the situation. Perhaps there’s a way of acting on those feelings which is smart but not spontaneous, strategic but not sentimental.
Buying Jack a coffee one morning could be the right thing to do. (Assuming he drinks coffee and wants a coffee.) Alternately, pledging that £2.50 to a homelessness charity, every week, for a month, then a year, then say, for the next 30 years, that could be transformative. That £3,000, for example, might help fund a campaign which changes the law to provide more social housing.
Notice Jack, recognise him. Own your feelings. Then observe that real change is not about loose change. It’s about having a plan and sticking with it. It’s about head and heart. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had this down. ‘The essential thing in heaven and earth,’ he said, 'is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.’
(Thanks to everyone who has pledged to The 95 since we launched our crowdfunding campaign with Unbound. We're now past the two thirds mark. If you know anyone who might like to back the book, please spread the word.)
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