This really might not seem like much, in fact I imagine most people talk to the homeless all the time…but I never have.
My ‘policy’ on beggars, and I think everyone has a policy, is that I don’t give any money but I always make eye contact. Also in my policy, it’s not a manifesto just two points, I never say “I’m sorry but I don’t have any change” because I always have change, instead I just say “sorry”. So to sum up my policy when asked for money: look them in the eye and just say sorry (in a whispered, slightly inaudible or sometimes just the word mouthed reserved English way).
I was worried about the task my friend Alex had set me – having to talk to homeless people ashamedly made me nervous. I’m not very good talking about serious things to people I don’t know, normally I don’t listen properly instead I’m just concentrating on looking like I’m listening whilst at the same time trying to find a way out.
After being distracted by Facebook for at least three hours, which is the best way to avoid any task, I thought it’s time to talk to some homeless people. I knew where I would start, a Big Issue seller outside Waterloo Station. I’ve walked past him probably over a thousand times in the last few years but never once have I spoken to him or bought his help the homeless magazine. To be brutally honest he kind of annoys me the way he says “Biiiiig Issue, help the homeless pleaaaase!”, I’ve always thought he’ll never sell any saying it like that.
I approach the Big Issue seller who it turns out is called Robert (I must remember to use his name next time I walk past whilst maintaining eye contact and mouthing sorry):
Homeless Robert: Biiiiig Issue, help the homeless pleaaaase!
Unnecessarily Nervous Neil: Hello I’d like to buy a Big Issue
Homeless Robert: That’s £2.50 please
Not that scary after all, but not really a conversation. What should I say next?
A little more relaxed Neil: So how does this Big Issue thing work?
Homeless Robert: well I buy each magazine for £1.70 from the Big Issue office and keep the profit
I forget the exact amount he buys the magazine for because I’m not really listening, just pretending to
Not really listening Neil: So it’s like running a business really?
Homeless Robert: Yes the Big Issue is like a business rather than a charity
And at that point I said goodbye and walked away. It wasn’t quite the profound conversation I was hoping for. He didn’t cry into my arms declaring “if only everyone was like you Neil the world would be a better place” but never the less I’d spoken to a homeless person.
I wasn’t really satisfied with my effort and felt I had to talk to another person. The problem with homeless people is they’re a bit like buses, when you don’t want them there are loads and when you need one you can’t bloody find one. I walked for ages until I found another homeless person – in London! bloody ridiculous!
I saw a Jehovah’s witnesses giving out leaflets about what the bible really means. It wasn’t part of my daily task, but I thought I’d approach her with an open mind as I’m trying to with all these new experiences. I explained I’m an atheist and believe in the logic of science. She then explained in a very articulate manner how DNA is made, talking of amino acids and various compounds that come together to make this scientific miracle and that the chances of it happening are so rare there must be some kind of God behind it all. The problem is I wasn’t really listening and also know Jack Shit about science. I walked away with a pamphlet and decided ‘is there actually an afterlife?’ was a subject for another day.
The next homeless person I meet was called Trevor. He was in a bad way. He’d just been discharged that day from St Thomas’ Hospital where he’d been for two weeks and had come close to death, he was now back on the street and very cold. He’d got septicaemia from a cut on his leg, the cut was from climbing over a fence to a secret place he’d found to sleep. I liked him. He had a cheeky edge underneath a desperate teary-eyed look. Trevor showed me his stolen NHS pyjamas he had on underneath his jeans to keep a bit warmer – cheeky. We talked a bit about hostels and that the charity St Mungo’s (weird name) had him on list for permanent housing. I walked away thinking I must speaking to him next time, but hopefully I won’t see him on the street again.
Another Big Issue seller commented on how I’d already got a copy of the Big Issue in my hand, I felt like some weird Big Issue stalker. I later bumped into a friend of mine and sold her my 2nd copy for £3. Immoral maybe, but these are desperate times.
Later I meet a homeless man with a dog. I petted Gizmo, the dog, not the man. The dog seemed to like me but the man not so much, perhaps Magically Margret the Psychic was right about animals being sensitive towards me.
The final homeless man I saw was freezing. I gave him some money and just apologised it wasn’t much. It seemed like he didn’t want to talk.
Before I got my train home I saw a final Jehovah’s witness and for some reason approached again, I guess I was still a little curious. He talked about the Promise Land where there’s no violence and hate. This was definitely one for another day, but I made a mental note to talk to preachers of different religions on my quest to do new things. If there is a God he MUST have sparkle.
By the end of the day I’d donated about £8 which was the same amount I paid for the psychic the day before, and I had changed my ‘policy’ on beggars.
In conclusion: you don’t have to give to the homeless but it might be nice to stop and have a chat.
SO, ON TO THE NEXT NEW THING…