The wisdom of the homeless
I think I know all about homelessness. I’m a long-term supporter of a homeless charity. I certainly know the statistics. Homelessness has increased by 169% since 2010. Homeless people are 17 times more likely than any other group on the street to be assaulted and abused. Stark and shocking as those statistics are, that’s all they are: statistics. The reality behind those statistics isn’t just stark and shocking; it’s soul-searing.
After four eight-hour shifts as a volunteer at a homeless centre this Christmas (2019), I have to change my knowledge status. I know nothing. I know nothing about so many things. I know nothing about the lack of trust I see in the eyes of our homeless guests. We’re offering safety and security with food, drink, entertainment, creature comforts, and still they do not trust us. And why should they? We’ve all played a part in creating their situation, even if all we’ve done is ignore it for so long.
We operate a 24/7 luggage facility at the centre, but many of our guests do not trust us with their possessions. They’ve learnt the hard way that if they let go of their stuff, it will disappear. And so I watch the young man who trails his skateboard round the centre; the middle-aged Asian lady who cannot let go of her shopping trolley. Even in the canteen, she drags it behind her, balancing her tray of food on her free hand.
Tesco bags for life seem to be the luggage choice for many, but some cannot aspire that high. ‘Do not’, says the shift leader at morning briefing, ‘thoughtlessly pick up a black bin bag and throw it away. It could contain a guest’s worldly possessions.’ In the middle of a contemporary consumerist Christmas, it’s a sobering thought.
Driving to survive
I know nothing about the drive for survival. It’s a drive so intense that guests grab a handful of biscuits from the tea and coffee point, wrap them in a serviette, and squirrel them away in their pockets. At mealtimes, they ask for their plates to be piled high with everything that’s on offer. Who can blame them? For the other 51 weeks of the year, they have no idea when or if their next hot meal will arrive.
Shamefully, I know nothing about the daily routine of the homeless. That changes on my first shift in the cinema, a converted classroom with a row of seats, a large screen, and a stack of DVDs. ‘Skyfall’ is playing to an audience of two. One of the audience members is an articulate, middle-aged black guy. At the end of the film, he describes his typical day.
‘I have to be out of the hostel by 8.00 each morning. I go to Wetherspoons and buy a cup of coffee I don’t want and can’t afford. But it’s somewhere to sit in the warm until the library opens. In the library I can get on with whatever I’m trying to progress.’ He recites the opening hours of the two libraries he frequents. After that it’s back to Wetherspoons. This time, he sneaks in: there’s no money for another coffee. ‘It’s now a question of sitting out the hours until the hostel opens again. Sometimes, that’s not until 9.00 pm.’
After an enlightening conversation about his mental and visual approach to brain-training apps, he tells me:
I’ve owned houses; a business even.’
It’s not what I’m expecting. It’s probably not what you’re expecting either. But, perhaps like me, you’ve always viewed the homeless as an amorphous mass rather than as individuals.
The power of story
That option is no longer available to me, not now I know some of their individual stories. I’ve met the young woman who’s eight and a half months pregnant who arrives at the centre on 23rd December, having spent the night of the 22nd sleeping rough. In an echo of the Nativity story, the local council has given her the ‘no room’ line, and told her to come back on the 27th. Without the centre, both she and her baby – had it arrived in the interim – could have been dead by then.
I talk to an older lady who lives at one of the London airports. She tells me with pride that she can complete the ‘Evening Standard’ Codeword puzzles in minutes. In happier times, she visited Bletchley Park, site of the WWII code breaking operations. On demonstrating her prowess, the guides told her she would have been working there had she been born in an earlier generation.
I welcome and register a married Iranian couple who are asylum-seekers. They’re so impressed by the centre that they volunteer to be volunteers themselves next year. I hope that’s possible, but I’m not optimistic.
All these conversations demonstrate what I leaned at my induction. The thing that the guests value most is the opportunity to engage with other people, to be looked in the eye, and acknowledged as a human being, rather than ignored as human detritus.
The astuteness of the young
After my shift on Christmas Day, my nephew phones to wish me a merry Christmas. We discuss my shift.
‘Today, I wondered whether some guests are homeless because they have mental issues, or have mental issues because they’re homeless.’
My nephew snorts. ‘We all have mental issues of one kind or another, so I guess we could all end up homeless.’
The next day at end-of-shift briefing, I learn how astute he is. The previous year at my centre, one-third of the people who sought advice from the Samaritans were volunteers. My nephew has also highlighted the biggest thing I don’t know.
We’re all one job loss, one bad financial decision, one relationship breakdown away from homelessness. The next time we avert our eyes from a homeless person on the street, we’d do well to make eye contact, to stop and speak. If circumstances had been other, that person could be our mother, our brother, our bestie. It could be me. It could be you.