The Happy Homeless Man

This time last year I was living in a shared house in Uxbridge, Middlesex. Every time I needed to commute to work, I would have to walk for thirty minutes to reach the nearest tube station – which required taking a pedestrian tunnel to cross one of the main roads. It was in this passageway that I encountered a peculiar homeless man every day. He was Indian (or of Indian complexion), had a thick, greying beard, was easily in his sixties, and I would always find him on a stained mattress coupled with its own duvet. How he had acquired these items was a mystery to me.

Sometimes he would be asleep when I passed him; other times he would be awake. Whenever he was awake, however, he would be sprawled out in a casual position (or pose, if you like) on the mattress – occasionally smoking a cigarette. Yet, not one of these characteristics were his most intriguing. What defined the old beggar above all was how friendly and modest he was as a person. Every time he saw me, he would recognise me and extend a silent, earnest greeting. ‘How are you today, sir?’ his face seemed to ask.

To begin with, I would simply smile awkwardly and continue onto the tube station. However, as the weeks passed, I started to develop an admiration for this elderly man. In spite of his situation, he always had a pleasant demeanour and never directly asked for money. The plastic cup was there waiting to be filled, yet not once did he plead or gesture towards it. He was unlike any other homeless person I’d ever encountered.

So, whenever I came home from work, I did whatever I could to make sure I had something to give him. I attempted to average two pounds a week, but when I didn’t have the change spare, I would ensure I always had something I could give him. A piece of fruit from my lunch would have sufficed in this situation.  I got dubious at times, thinking that once I was gone he would sneak off with the money I gave him and buy another pack of cigarettes. Although, after a while I thought, ‘You know what, mate – go ahead. You deserve it.’ It eventually got to the stage where I would hope and even look forward to seeing him on my daily commute. Even though we rarely spoke in conversation, he had made such a positive influence on my daily life.

Then, one day, he was gone. Him and every trace of his existence vanished. He never returned to that spot in the underground passageway and since moving to East London, I haven’t seen him since. I never even knew his name. I don’t know to this day what happened to that happy homeless man. Perhaps the police picked him up and moved him elsewhere; or maybe one of the homeless charities found him and have helped him to get his life back on track. I doubt he will ever read this, but wherever he is now, I can only wish him the best.

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Image by Kieran Tuke

That was one of my more positive encounters with homelessness. But here’s where it doesn’t get so warm and fuzzy. Depending on where you live, homelessness is something we witness every day of the week. Yet, while it results in an estimated 4,134 people sleeping rough on any one night in England [1], we as a nation are reluctant to do anything about it. That, or we simply choose to ignore it. According to Homeless Link, there has been an increase of 16% in rough sleeping in the UK since 2015 alone. If you think that’s bad, you’ll be disgusted to find out that homelessness has risen by a monolithic 134% since 2010 [2].

Isn’t it convenient that our government doesn’t have the resources to provide the increasing homeless population with the help they desperately need, but have plenty of cash handy (£396 million to be exact) to renovate Queen Elizabeth’s palace? [3] £396 million! Just think of what that money could do; how many homeless people could be brought off the street and given the proper care. But no. While our capital’s oversized monuments undergo “essential” restoration, other areas in dire need of funding are mercilessly cut off. As a result, the hard work is left in the hands of charities like Crisis, Emmaus and Shelter. Although these agencies do whatever they can to bring rough sleepers in from the cold, they simply cannot provide for the entirety of the homeless population – meaning vast numbers are left to fend for themselves.

I think Johnathon Pie articulates the situation effectively: ‘It’s a societal failure, homelessness. […] It’s people that are hungry, begging and sleeping on the streets. And yet we’re encouraged to see homeless people as if they’ve somehow failed themselves; as if it’s their fault; they haven’t worked hard enough. […] A society doesn’t work if one person is living rough. It’s morally bankrupt if this is normal, and on the increase, and getting worse. […] Every day I walk past people who are cold and hungry and ill and homeless, and I don’t stop and give them everything I have. Shame on me.’ [4]

Homelessness is a horrid situation, and one that’s not going to rectify itself any time soon. When it comes to human nature, kindness should be a given. On the other hand, when anything that is supposed to fundamentally help people is being cut from government funding, it’s difficult to find room in our busy lives for selfless acts. Yet without us, the homeless community is alone. They have nowhere else to turn but to the common man. Now, I understand that everybody has commitments in their own lives that cannot be ignored. I recognise that all citizens can’t just be expected to spend night after night at the nearest soup kitchen to help solve this issue, but there are ways that you can help these people without going too far out your way.

For instance, instead of throwing out any non-fitting or unwanted clothing, donate it. If they would have otherwise gone to the recycling centre, then you may as well give them to a worthy cause. Another way of helping the homeless – according to The Telegraph – is by alerting professional authorities like Streetlink to any sightings. [5] By doing this, you’ll be helping to connect the right people with those in need. One of the most direct and conventional ways of helping the homeless, however, is by giving money. Whether you’re donating it to a shelter or giving it straight to the victim, you’ll be making life a little easier for someone worse off than yourself.

Of course, there’s always the argument that we shouldn’t give homeless people money because it will only enable the addictions they have. Well firstly, just because they’re living rough doesn’t mean they are addicted to anything – or that they’ll use your money to fuel their next drug fix. But if this is such a deep concern for you, then why not simply cut out the middle man. Go into the shop, grab a sandwich or a cup of tea and give that to them instead. That way, you’ve taken any possible temptation out of the equation.

Half the time, we don’t give money to the homeless because we simply don’t have spare change on us at the time. This is fair enough, as I have also experienced this on numerus occasions. Having said that, the number of times I’ve been short of cash in a store that doesn’t accept credit or debit cards is embarrassing. If you too go through this headache, then kill two birds with one stone. From now on, every time you walk past the cash point with an empty wallet, just draw out a tenner. Then, if the shop you visit doesn’t accept credit card, you’re covered. And at the same time, if you pass a homeless person on the way back, you’ll have something to spare.

I’m not saying this will solve the problem. But by donating whatever coins you have on you, you can walk on knowing that you’ve made that person’s day a little bit brighter. Because considering how horrid their days can get, a bit of brightness can make all the difference. We’re all guilty of walking by the homeless without lending a helping hand. Don’t feel guilty, though. It’s not what you’ve failed to do that matters now; it’s how you choose to act from now on.

Sources

[1]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/585713/Rough_Sleeping_Autumn_2016_Statistical_Release.pdf

[2] http://www.homeless.org.uk/facts/homelessness-in-numbers/rough-sleeping/rough-sleeping-our-analysis

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/18/buckingham-palace-to-undergo-370m-refurbishment

[4] http://educateinspirechange.org/alternative-news/journalists-rant-homelessness-christmas-amazing/

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11620159/Whats-the-best-way-to-help-the-homeless.html

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