I read an article recently about being homeless during the winter months, something that flits in and out of my consciousness when I walk through Norwich, or back in London, when I ignore the crouched figures in tube stations or guiltily avoid the eye contact of the man waving the Big Issue under my nose. It made me wonder, how can so many of us, suited booted and able-bodied, walk past a lone shivering body, huddled in blankets on a doorstep, without shovelling them into our arms and running with them to a safer, warmer, better place?
Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, of course, is the all too familiar answer. Everyone’s heard or told stories about these kinds of things. Once I stood outside a tube station for twenty minutes, waiting for my sister so we could watch an outdoor showing of The Sound of Music in Hyde Park. There was a homeless woman sitting on the ground, rocking, and I thought she might be crying. But what shocked me was that she was around my age, twenty or younger. I watched for several minutes, doing the same as everyone else who was standing around – I was waiting. I found myself glaring at people, in suits with older faces than mine and thicker wallets, willing them to approach her. And then of course I realised that we were all trapped in a guilty limbo, waiting for each other to act. I went to M&S and bought a sandwich for her. I asked her if she was alright and she spoke, in perfect English with a voice as clear and well-spoken as me or any of my friends (which I am ashamed to say surprised me – where were the missing teeth, the hissing, the gooey mess of language that signal a mind battered by years of abuse and addiction?). She said she was fine. I thought of all the times I’ve answered ‘how are you?’ with anything other than ‘good’, ‘fine’, ‘great’ and I sank into my shoes. No one ever thinks to admire the homeless but right then, I did.
I wish I could finish the story with ‘and then I bought her a house and she got married and had children and became a famous artist’. Unfortunately I have no idea what her story is, or was. I don’t know why she was on the streets, I don’t know if she still is. I don’t even know her name, I can’t remember the colour of her eyes, I couldn’t tell you how old she was or whether she ate that sandwich. Or enjoyed it. Friends say ‘it was good of you, to buy that sandwich for her’ and I worry. Really, surely, that is the least that any human being should do? So many of us are not homeless, are not even poor, and we have some potential to change a life, I hope?
But it is, of course, complicated. We couldn’t keep taking strangers home with us and giving them the spare room or the sofa. If it was me, my family would soon change the lock on the door and there’d be one more person living on the streets. We can’t expect sandwiches to make everything better, either. There are, of course, great charities that aid the homeless, such as Shelter and St Mungos, and programmes that give homeless people opportunities to be safe, warm and fed for the night. There are soup kitchens. There is the Big Issue scheme. If we want to help, we should fund charities that know what they are doing, that work towards long term solutions rather than the distribution of lunch for the day. Maybe in a hundred years or two hundred, who knows, every person in the UK could even have a roof above them and a bed with sheets.
But that’s not really what I’m writing about. I cannot bring an end to homelessness with one blog post. I’m just expressing a long-standing horror, which I cannot seem to shake, that homelessness exists at all. What haunts me is the thought that, if I lay in a shop entrance or an alcove for the night, wrapped in an old sheet from my wardrobe, without a dog or a ferret to lure people in, there is the possibility that no one would stop, no one would spare any money, or a sandwich, or a kind word. The thought that people in their hundreds could walk past, entirely indifferent to my situation, my life, terrifies me more than the thought of the sores, the cold, the violent drunken strangers.
I would love you to read this, click on the links and donate immediately to St Mungos or Shelter. I would love you to start a monthly direct debit to a homeless charity. But what I would really love you to do, is to stop, every time you encounter someone suffering at your feet. Just to ask, ‘are you OK?’ or to offer some food, or a drink or a coat. Would we need homeless charities, if everyone stopped?
The answer to that question seems to be: we will never know. Which isn’t the end of the world. Not for us.