What do you see? Is this an old or a young woman?
What do you see when you encounter a rough sleeper? I wonder if you see a person?
I went into London this week for a business meeting. The meeting ended about 5pm and I headed off to meet my brother at Waterloo station…rush hour! No signal on the tube, so as soon as I got there I head outside to ring him and find out what we would be doing.
I see the man with the obligatory cup and sleeping bag but wanted to make sure my brother wasn’t waiting somewhere else for me, so dropped him a quick text, before approaching.
Whilst texting, and in my peripheral vision, I became aware of a young woman walking towards the rough sleeper; her face frozen in a look of pure disgust. She practically stepped over him, like a pile of dog poo.
It would be fair to say that he didn’t look good. Everything was dirty; the colour of his clothing stained with that kind of greyish hue that comes from being outdoors a lot. He was bent forward, possibly asleep with one hand sticking out, half way through a cigarette. Gnarled, brown fingers poked out of the sleeves of his checked jacket.
“Are you alright lovey?" I enquired.
He looked up at me, with a grubby face, and teeth like tombstones.
“Ah yes, I nodded off…didn’t get much sleep last night.”
I sat on the floor with him and listened to his story – abridged here – but incredibly similar to the
other stories I hear. He has lost contact (and doesn’t want contact) with his family over the years; he talked about his young daughter however, that he misses her, but the family feud is too nasty to risk getting in touch.
Me: “Do you like living on the streets?”
Him: “Sometimes. In the Summer it’s ok…but when the weather turns it’s no good. I’m trying to get enough money to go to the night shelter.”
Me: “They charge?”
Him: “£7.00 but you have to get there early.”
I explain about the provision in Watford, which is quite different. He tells me that London is an interesting city, he hangs out in libraries and McDonalds to keep warm. They move him on if he falls asleep there, and sometimes he hasn’t got money for a drink in McDonalds to justify being there.
There is a school of thought about not giving to the homeless which I disagree with, if you give this guy money he is going to buy a cuppa and save for a night’s shelter! If he bought say, alcohol after that, do you blame him? Do you enjoy a glass of wine in the evening? What’s the difference?
It’s what we see; just for a minute looking at him as a person and not a ‘tramp’ can make a world of difference.
Make that difference to someone this week. Acknowledge the people on the street – what you think you see at first glance can be an illusion.