I recently had to pop into town to buy a few bits and bobs, and parked my car, as you do. As I walked out of the car park, I spied a young guy in his early twenties wearing a camouflage jacket and hat and some three quarter gloves with no ends in, huddled on the ground. I made a mental note to buy him some food on my way back to the car.
‘Oh no, I forgot,’ I thought, as I walked quickly back, laden with carrier bags full of Christmas shopping and noticed the shivering body just ahead of me. I wonder how many times I’ve been soooo determined to go somewhere, get somewhere, meet someone or buy yet another blooming Christmas present that I’ve ignored the people I should really be thinking about at Christmas. Probably far too many, I’m ashamed to say. But yesterday, I decided to prioritise what was really important at Christmas, so I went over to him and asked him if he was hungry.
‘Err, yes, I am…a little bit,’ he said, apologetically.
‘Okay, I’ll be back soon.’
I scooted off to the local bakers and bought him a carton of soup, a sandwich, a sausage roll and a packet of crisps.
‘Would you not be better off at the Salvation Army?’ I asked him as I handed over my bounty.
‘Err, no, there isn’t one in Darlington any more,’ he said, without a hint of sourness or sarcasm. ‘I’ve put my name down for a hostel, but there’s only two and they prioritise girls, which is fair enough.’
‘Oh dear! Haven’t you even got a sleeping bag?’
‘No, I usually sleep under a bridge but the other night I had to sleep somewhere else ‘cos there were lots of drunks about and it got soaked.’
My mind was whirring at a rate of knots. I always thought homeless people were homeless because they had a pet that the hostels wouldn’t allow, not that there just weren’t any beds for them. How the hell can this happen? He was just an ordinary bloke – not on drugs, not an alcoholic (although, to be honest, I would have completely understood if he had turned to drink or drugs just to blur the edges of reality).
‘Do you come here every day?’
‘I’ll be back with a sleeping bag tomorrow.’
He was so humble, so lovely to talk to…dare I say it, so normal. My heart went out to him, and when I went back the next day with a sleeping bag in tow and he wasn’t there, I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened to him.
I remember watching a documentary a few years ago whereby so-called celebrities were challenged to live on the streets for a week. They were given a small amount of money to start with and then had to survive on their wits. Most of them found it unutterably hard. They started off working, say, as a photographer with a camera they’d come across in a charity shop, but then found that after a few days people shunned them because their breath smelt, their bodies stunk and they were unshaven and unclean. They were horrified to realise that the society which had only recently adored them, now found them repulsive.
These celebrities approached others who were living rough for guidance and tips, and found that they were the only ones who welcomed them with open arms; they looked after them and looked out for them, with no question of reward, just simply because they cared and because they had once walked in their shoes as a homeless newbie. They told them which areas to avoid, where to get the most shelter and where to find cardboard boxes and soup kitchens. Many of them had either run away from home because of domestic crises or had nervous breakdowns due to the pressure of work or family break-ups that they couldn’t handle. And that was what struck me…at the end of the day they were just like you and me, they had just fallen on hard times, run away from their problems for whatever reason and had ended up homeless. But here is the thing – they weren’t broken. Most of them were feisty, courageous human beings who had hearts of gold and were doing the best they could in dire circumstances. It brought a tear to my eye.
The documentary was commissioned by John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue Magazine, to highlight the plight of the homeless. What a down-to-earth, magnanimous man he is! He spoke so much common sense and, basically, just wanted people to realise that homeless people are valuable human beings who need to be treated with sympathy, support and respect, not cast out from society and ignored on a daily basis. He was speaking from experience, as he had been homeless in his youth and therefore knew first-hand the problems they faced.
One guy on the programme, a young Duke who had inherited millions, was found sneaking through the back entrance of a posh hotel to sleep in the luxury of a comfortable bed and was discovered eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. John Bird couldn’t quite believe his eyes and asked him why he had cheated and if he was prepared to give it another go. He wasn’t. He quit. Vast sums of money can obviously make some people weak, selfish and have no compassion for their fellow man. It was cringe-making. What does it take to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for just one week? Surely that is what is necessary to understand what these people are going through and have to suffer on a daily basis.
Never again will I walk past a homeless man or woman without trying to help them out in some way, whether it be buying them some food, giving them money or even just making small talk, so that they don’t feel ignored by the majority of people strutting past them who ‘just don’t have time to stop’. At the end of the day, that person sitting there is somebody’s son or daughter and who are we to judge how they came to be in that position? What they probably most need is some love, some human contact, some conversation, so that they know that they are not alone in the world. Surely we could all make time to do that this Christmas.