As some of my readers will know, 2015 has been a year of significant changes for me, all driven by my desire to become a better, more caring, more compassionate person. Today’s post isn’t a “Yay, look at me” entry, but more of an example of how a seemingly small thing can make a difference to someone.
Today I was in Cambridge doing some Christmas shopping with my partner Dee. We had just put some shopping in the car and were heading back into the market square to get some lunch. Down one of the side streets there was a man and a woman sitting on the pavement, with their dog, wrapped up against the cold. Most people were ignoring them and walking by quickly, but Dee stopped when they asked if we had any spare change. We chatted with them briefly before Dee and I set off to buy them some hot tea. As we were leaving, the man said they’d be happy to share one cup between them. No doubt they thought we wouldn’t be back, but within 5 minutes or so I took them a cup of hot, sweet tea each. Their gratitude was palpable, and I have to confess to being quite emotional for some time afterwards. (I’ll let you into a guilty secret – at nearly 50 years old it was the first time in my life I’d done anything like this. And do you know what? It felt really good.)
So why am I telling you all this? So far, so “yay, look at me”, right? That’s just setting the scene for you. What I really want to talk about follows on now.
I’m sure that nearly all of us have seen people in a similar situation, sitting in the street asking strangers for any loose change, sitting there surrounded by all their worldly possessions, cold, hungry, unwashed, destitute, without hope. And what have you done? Have you spoken to them? Have you ignored their pleas? Have you steadfastly looked in the opposite direction or pretended to be on the phone just so you don’t have to make eye contact? More crucially perhaps – have you judged them, made assumptions as to why they are there, living like that?
No-one sets out in their lives to become homeless. No-one in the UK sits in front of their careers officer at school and says that they want to live on the streets, hoping for handouts from passers by. They are all someone’s son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, husband or wife. They all have unique stories to tell. Many will have had dreams and ambitions, plans for the future. Many may have had a “normal” life with a house and family.
So how do they end up where they are? The reasons are many and varied, but for some it could be one single decision that sparked off a chain of events which culminated in them having nowhere to go but onto the streets. For some it could be illness – depression, nervous breakdown, overwork, stress, bad luck – who knows? Perhaps they were in an abusive relationship and this was the only escape? For all we know, they may have sacrificed everything so their children could have a clean and safe place to live. Whatever the trigger, they could have lost their job, home, relationships, friends etc and then hit a downward spiral. And if it can happen to them, then you better believe it can happen to you or me.
Yes, there are some who have got there through various addictions – drink, drugs, gambling, whatever – and there are those who will continue to feed those addictions with whatever change they can gather in the course of the day. (There are also those who are putting on an act, and who go home to a comfortable house every night, though there are not many.)
But you don’t have to give change do you? Food and a hot drink may go a long way to helping that person feel “normal”, feel that they matter, feel that someone cares. When you have nothing, with no prospects for change, those things are precious and could make that person’s day. You can make a difference for them, even if just for today.
Looking into the eyes of the man we met today, his shame was evident. He didn’t want to ask strangers for handouts, for whatever they were willing to give, but he had no choice. It was that or go hungry – and how many days does that happen?
At the end of the day, all those living on the street are the same as us: they are people, they are human, and for someone to show some kindness, to show they care, is a start. I for one will be doing this more often than once every 50 years. What about you?