I WAS in a charity shop this week. I didn’t need anything; I was just killing time before going for lunch with my pal. A barefoot woman entered. She stumbled against the shelf, and then insulted it. We shoppers immediately all looked the other way. I concentrated hard on the heart-shaped egg-poacher I’d grabbed in a panic to look busy. She was trying to get the staff’s attention by waving a Carpenters LP about. She had no money, but she wanted some shoes. She was promising the hat display that she would pay for them when she could. She had blisters on the soles of her feet. She couldn’t walk but she was trying (I know I sound a bit like a Phil Collins song, but bear with me). The shop workers thought if they ignored her she might leave, but I thought twice (I thought, “It’s just another day for me in paradise", this Oxfam).
I bought the lady some shoes (now I sound like Mr Wendal). I bought her some socks too. I wanted to run from her smell, and her dirt, but then she looked me in the eye and she apologised for her state.
She sounded like one of my children when she said sorry, and suddenly she was no longer disgusting. I was, for being so shallow. As I wrestled large men’s thermal socks over her black and battered feet she told me about herself and how she came to be on the street.
Maybe her story was not true. Maybe she was not attacked, maybe her mum didn’t die, maybe Brighton and Hove City Council had not bought her a one-way ticket to Bedford (that she showed me).
Maybe she was just a well-spoken old lush, but she looked me in the eye when she talked. Whatever she may or may not be, she is a person. She has a name. She is someone’s daughter.
She will still be a person when her train arrives at the end of the line in Bedford. She will become someone else’s problem, without being treated like a someone herself. At least now she has some sparkly silver trainers and bright blue socks to pound the pavements in.
Us Brightonians can all tell a tale about the time we gave that scruffy kid by the cash-point a fiver and found him later that night with a needle poking out of his arm, or how we offered someone looking needy money and they asked for drugs instead as “change was not much use”.
Let’s be honest. If your life felt as pointless and pathetic as theirs, would you pick a cheese sandwich or a fix of something to numb the pain?
There was a boy on North Street with eyes as clear and blue as my daughter’s. Beside the lid of a Styrofoam cup were some drawings. Next to them he’d made a sign that read ‘Hello everyone, take it easy, be lucky and have fun’.
No-one stopped. They turned their heads away. Maybe they hoped if they did not acknowledge him, he could stop being real?
His life had led him to the street. His failings were laid out for us all to see, on his filthy blanket, in his empty plastic cup lid. No-one was reading his message “be lucky, have fun”. To still wish that for others when he had nothing for himself? I admire that.
Mother Teresa said, ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’. We can spare a hello, or an ‘I like your drawing’.
I know that there are homeless people who have been ungrateful for a bagel instead of a beer, but they are not all that way. They cannot all be written-off or passed by.
These people have nothing. They sit on our streets, relying on their faith in humankind, and we do the most unkind thing possible – we ignore them.
These homeless people spend their days watching a thousand feet march busily past while they have nowhere else to be. What must that feel like?
I am not an idiot. I know homelessness, drugs, alcohol, criminal damage and theft all go hand in hand, but it’s not contagious. We cannot catch anything by helping these people (that said I did give my hands a jolly good scrub after the whole shoe fitting experience). And I know too, that some of the people on our streets are beyond saving, some don’t want to help themselves.
I stopped and offered three homeless people a hot drink. Two of them said yes and one swore at me. In the words of Meat Loaf, however, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad' .So don’t stop offering a cup of tea or casual banter just because one person throws it back at you. Gather more than 20 people together and there will be a few plonkers. It’s the same in the homeless community.
And judge not, because there but for the grace of God….