So. How do you react when you pass a homeless person?
Avoid eye contact? Feel embarrassed? Feel helpless? Offer a sympathetic glance? Cross the street? Give cash? Strike up a conversation? Report him/her? Buy him a coffee? Feel offended?
Today I had the luxury of two hours of time-wasting and coffee drinking with my partner in central Cardiff before an appointment. We were strolling along happy and carefree. Laughing I expect. Holding hands. A young lad, maybe in his mid 20’s is sat on a dirty duvet in a shop doorway. Rucksack by his side, blanket on his legs. Teardrop tattoo by his right eye. He looks sad. Freezing.
By the time I see him I am in the process of crossing the road away from him. I catch myself looking at him and turn away… I’m embarrassed. It looks like (to whom I don’t know), I’m crossing the road to avoid him. My mood changes. I feel sad. Helpless. Embarrassed. I tell my partner I want to go and get him something warm. We turn around and walk back to the market. I avoid eye contact with the pathetic looking lad.
Having purchased a cup of hot soup we head back. I say to John, “what if loads of people have bought him food or drink and he doesn’t want it”
“At least it will keep his hands warm for a bit” says John, “but I doubt it”.
Poor lad, sat there in the drizzle, a lost soul, invisible in the commercial, consumerist chaos and greed surrounding him. I feel guilty for the money I spent on a meal out the evening before.
“You look freezing love, here’s something to warm you up”
He looks terribly sad and quite confused. Has he been crying? “My mum’s just died” he says
I ask how he knows.
“I go to the library every Monday and use the public phone”
We continue to chat. Another person arrives and hands him a roll and a coffee. Asks if she can help.
I don’t know if his story is true. I don’t even know if he knows. But I’m told his mum has died since his last call. His son is at school, he doesn’t know what to say to him. His mum is his son’s legal guardian. He’d been in prison because of some incident of violence and he needs to get to Caerphilly where his mum and son are. He tells me he asked the police to take him there but they told him not to waste their time.
So. What should you, or would you, do at this point? More cash? Some sympathy? Walk away? Find a policeman? We don’t know how to react do we? We’re not trained for this. There’s no manual we can refer to.
I offered to take him to the station and buy him a ticket. In my mind this is the obvious solution. I would have ‘done my bit’, I could feel right with the world again. I am so saddened by my helplessness in the situation and of his plight. It’s embarrassing to admit it makes me feel uncomfortable and its put a bit of a damper on my day.
Anyway, it’s all too much for him. He can’t get his head around his options. He thinks he should stay put for a bit and try to get some money. Talk to his aunt who’ll be by after schools out. As I said before, he’s confused. Whether or not the story is real is irrelevant, he believes it and his heart is breaking. Well mine is.
So? What would you do now? Say ‘Ok’ and move on? Try and persuade him that your help is the right option? Report him? Give money? What is the etiquette here?
I offer to come back in an hour with the car and if he wants a lift and a ticket I’d get him one.
As we walk off he calls after us ” you will come back and check won’t you?” “Of course”, says I. “I promise”.
I wonder at the chain of life events that has resulted in this point of time. At the pain and sadness, trials and tribulations he and his family and friends may have endured. A small part of me is angered by this negative intrusion into my rose-tinted world. Another small part of me is ashamed of that.
We do go back. I have John driving down the taxi only lanes and parking in the disabled bay so I can get to near him. So he can see the offer is genuine. Its been about 40 minutes since the food, soup, coffee, chat.
But he doesn’t think he should come. Not yet. He should wait. Who knows what for. I’m sure he is struggling to grasp his thoughts. I’m not sure about his reality. I want to give him a cwtch. Should I? All I can think about is how vulnerable and small he looks. I hesitate. But I don’t offer the cuddle. I also don’t offer cash. Even though he asks for the latter.
I’m reluctant, but I walk off back to the car. “Thanks anyway” he calls.
I wish I’d offered the cwtch. I wonder what he’d have done with the cash.