I have just had the most eye-opening conversation with a relatively drunk, homeless man….and seeing as he doesn’t readily have access to a computer, but has a story to tell…I thought I’d share it, and get you all thinking about stereotypes in society.
I had met for coffee with a friend, after buying a pair of fluffy/fleecy pyjamas to keep me warm at night; I’m especially sensitive to cold and heat, and as winter is creeping in I’m preparing myself. I finished the coffee, and rushed to the bus stop, already checking emails on my phone and cursing the fact I stopped for the precise hour that the rest of the world exploded and so my inbox was full. My head was racing with to-do lists, and trying not to drown in the depressed feelings which are never far enough away. Basically, I looked like a flappy student rushing through town with my Primark bag and winter coat/gloves.
Waiting at my bus stop, I heard shouting across the road, and glanced over. There was a homeless guy being shouted at by someone, and he was swearing loudly back. I don’t feel afraid or nervous around homeless people, having had my fair share of experiences on the street and therefore I am wise to the types of people that end up in such a state. However, I did feel myself tense up on seeing the heated argument, and hoped my bus would hurry.
As it was, the guy spotted me glancing over, and started to wobble across the road towards me. “Hello ma’am, how are you?” he said, smiling with his mixed shape and colour of teeth. Ma’am. Around me I heard women tut, and I saw them look away. I sighed, but looked at him and smiled, “I’m very well thank you, and how are you?” There’s some random higher level of politeness in immediate conversation I’ve noticed when homeless people talk to “normal” people. By no means am I a “ma’am” and by no means would I normally speak so….politely?? That sounds awful haha. But you know what I mean… normally my response would be “Okay ta, you?” for example.
On asking how he was, he crumpled in front of me and babbled incoherently…something about him having collapsed and ending up on hospital, at which he showed me his hospital band on his wrist, and that he was frightened because he couldn’t remember collapsing or even going to hospital…he just woke up in hospital. Then he grabbed the bus stop for some kind of support, and I instinctively reached out and grabbed his shoulder. He was very wobbly. “I’m in withdrawal…” he moaned, his face creased with pain and tiredness. “I’m scared. I shouldn’t have been in that bed. Someone good should have it. Not me.”
“No no…everyone’s entitled to hospital treatment here…” I glanced at a couple of the women around me for some support, but they just kept their distance and watched me, in silence. They looked almost disgusted. I actually heard one woman gasp when I supported him with my hand. I touched him. Oh my goodness. He was going to fall over and I helped him steady himself. Is that really so shocking?
Aware I was already about to scream in the women’s faces, I turned my attention completely to the man, who was now sitting on the floor with his knees under his chin, looking up at me. I went to sit down too – my bus wasn’t due for another 5/10 minutes. “No…” he stopped me “stand there.” He didn’t want me sitting down, for some reason. I gave him a puzzled expression. He said, “well it’s cold down here, see. Stand and stay warm.”
I blinked. I’m always moved by the compassion of the people on the streets. So many have helped me in the days where I roamed the streets at night-time; where my self-worth had deteriorated to the point that selling myself for sex seemed the only worthy way to live. I had never been on hard drugs long enough to experience full-blown withdrawal, but did have some very mild experience. Based on just that, I couldn’t imagine what pain he was in now. “I’m burning up….” he said, and shook even more. I rubbed his shoulder, “just feel my hand, and think…if you really were burning I wouldn’t be able to touch you. Focus on my hand….” he calmed down, and just shook underneath my hand. My gloved hand, keeping me warm.
He looked at me again, and told me his name. I smiled, and told him mine. He muttered quickly, “simple name for a simple girl….” then looked at me in panic, “I don’t mean you’re dumb. I mean you’re simple. Good simple. You ain’t judged me. You talk to me. You just simple with it all.” Then he muttered some more stuff which I didn’t catch, and then he looked up with a face full of every kind of expression, and he asked “are you ashamed, talking to me?”
I smiled again, “not at all…I’m standing here, aren’t I?”
He nodded and looked thoughtful, pulled his thin jacket around him and said “I don’t normally like people who look like you. But you talk. You’re beautiful you are.” Normally such comments from strangers would have me cringing inside, but he carried on “beautiful. Don’t report me. I don’t mean it body way. I mean you. You talk to me. So you’re beautiful…” he paused and grinned, “I’m beautiful too.” I grinned also, and agreed with him.
He was calm for a couple of moments, and I looked back to the women…who were still staring. For half a moment I wondered if I was hallucinating, but I could feel the man, and he had a shadow, and the women were real too. It was all real.
His face was lined with weariness and age. Experiences of many types. Trauma, that was obvious. The lines weaved across his face, some deep, some new, all dirty…all telling a story. All a part of him. All carrying more emotion than I could bear to comprehend. As he stared away, and his eyes met some distant memory and his lines creased with them, I couldn’t help feeling emotional. There was something about him that was so deeply sad, and he made no effort to disguise it. He turned back to me and said, loudly, “help me…help me Jade…stay here with me. Stay here…” he grabbed my waist, not in a threatening manner or even forceful, just desperate.
I shook my head slowly, “I’m very sorry I can’t stay, I have to go. How can I help you? Tell me?” he didn’t know. I pointed a little way behind him “I’m going to – ”
“NO,” he cut across me, and grabbed my arms. At this point one of the womens’ partners bustled up and moved nearer to me, as if I needed protection. The man didn’t notice, but stared into my eyes desperately, “please don’t go and talk to him, he’s bad!”
“To who?!” I asked, puzzled, “I’m not going to talk to anyone, I was going to – ”
“Then why you going over there. You gonna talk to that man in the corner aintya. He bad. Please don’t.” He started shaking violently, and removed his hands from my arms. I looked up and saw a man smoking, hiding by an alley-way, with a dog at his feet. He was watching us. He gave me goosebumps. I dropped my voice, “I’m not going to talk to him. I was going to ring someone who can help you…”
“No no no!” He begged, clutching my arms again, crying. He looked terrified.
“Okay okay!” I looked back to the man in the alley. I nearly asked who he was, but hesitated. I didn’t want to be dragged into street politics again. I’ve been here before. It’s dangerous.
Once the man was reassured I wasn’t going anywhere, he asked if I would hold his hand. I said yes, and he just stared at me. “Really?” he said. I looked back, sad at his amazement that anyone would be happy to hold his hand, “yes, really…” I said quietly, and took his hand. He burst into drunken tears. The women sighed, a couple moved off. Several gave him a pitying expression. They, frankly, drove me up the wall.
“I wasn’t always like this. The Doctor at the (says local psychiatric hospital name) says I am on the borderline of genius and insane. He said that you know. That’s where I’m at. Worst borderline in the world.”
I didn’t doubt the truth in that. He, despite being drunk, spoke compassionately and understood me. He then spoke aloud what appeared to be a short and captivating poem. I asked if it was his and he shrugged, “I wasn’t always like this. Nothing left now but to do poems really. I served for thirteen years. Thirteen. Then the money ran out. So out of nowhere. Here I am.”
I didn’t really understand him, and said so, rather than pretend to know what he meant. He shrugged again, “I had a job. Family. Money. It all ran out. I started drinking. Shamed of having nothing. Now I’m here. Poems…poems….” he drifted off and started shaking again, then crying, then grabbed my hand again, “can we get a cup of tea one day?”
I laughed, “one day yes. But you’ll have to sober up first. There’s no way you’d be allowed in a tea room, no offence, as you are…”
He laughed too. A very deep laugh. It was great to hear. “Yeah they’d kick me out before I could say hello. They all do. All people like you. Just walk away. Spit on me. I wanna say hello and they look away. They don’t know I was one of you once. I could buy clothes once. Poem…poem….” he started coughing, and offered me a cigarette, which I declined. He looked at me “you not like the people like you. You talk. You say hello. What happened to you? You people only nice if something happened.”
Sad truth, I fear.
“I’ve had my time on the streets too…this very street, even. So you can’t give up, okay? Sober up so that if we see each other again, I can get you a cup of tea.”
“I aint giving up. But it hard…” he started crying, and squeezed my hand hard. I looked back at the women, who had now turned away entirely and were having their own conversations. I wanted to yell at them, if only you heard this, you wouldn’t be so fast to judge…
I started shivering, and he jumped – “are you cold? Do you want my jacket?” Here’s me, in my thick coat and with gloves, and there’s him, with his torn t-shirt and thin jacket. He was shaking with cold. “No…no, thank you…I’m okay. Keep you warm huh?” He shook his head and muttered, “don’t want you catching a cold, no no. I’ll stay here until you get your bus. So you’re safe. And warm. Warm.”
My bus came, and we’d been talking for ten minutes. He was able to tell me the time, to the minute, based on where the buses were. I remarked that this was quite an extraordinary skill and I wish I could so reliably tell the time! He insisted on waving me off, but said “I’ll walk to the door but not say nothing, because they’ll throw me away. Don’t be ashamed of me.”
“I’m not ashamed of you…” I said, and squeezed his shoulder. “I would be grateful if you could wave me off…”
I got on the bus and turned, and we waved. I sat down and a few women, suddenly, came to life. In the space of perhaps two minutes I was asked, “are you okay?” four times, with deep concern.
“I am fine, thank you. He…is not. I trust you all bloody well are,” I snapped back, “he’s a person just like you or I. Treat him like scum and you wonder why none of them feel able to ask for proper help.” I snapped again, and turned away, staring out of the window, hot tears suddenly pricking my eyes. The women said nothing, except for one who said “I think you were very brave…”
Furious now, I snapped back, “what’s so brave about saying hello and giving someone half a chance to explain? We were in a public place and he was sat down. There’s nothing he could have done. He’s the brave one, facing these icy nights on the streets.”
The woman looked shocked at my sharp tongue, and I turned away again, staring out of the window.
Why does it affect me, you ask?
Because I, as I say, have had my fair share on the streets and have be-friended several homeless people. The vast majority of them have the most beautiful, yet tragically damaged and fragile souls, and years of being ignored, spat on, ran away from or shouted at has – as you can imagine – only made them feel even less worthy of seeking proper help and getting a house. They are treated like scum and therefore believe themselves to be. Like he didn’t feel he should have gone to hospital. It’s just heart-breaking.
I am exceptionally lucky in that had it not been for an incredible friend with a heart of gold, I would have faced either 9 months with my abusers, or 9 months on the street last year. I could *very* very easily be where that man is now. I have, within the space of 3 days, gone from being how I am now…to a student by day, drug addict and prostitute by night. Here’s some news for you all, in April THIS YEAR this happened. I cannot describe to you how empty my self-worth was. This also happened in AUGUST THIS YEAR. No drugs this time, but selling myself for sex because I felt so vile and disgusting, I deemed it the only worthwhile thing I could do.
Do you judge me? I well imagine if I had ended up on the streets and none of you realised it was me, I would have been ignored, spat on, shouted at etc. Would you have given me the chance to speak? Almost certainly not. And so I would have wallowed in my pain and most likely turned to alcohol just to numb it all, as I expect the man I met today did. But people see him as a homeless alcoholic and judge him. I see him as a broken man in need of a friend.
I’m sick of living in a society which is so quick to judge. So many of the stories I’ve heard from homeless people have been stories of sorrow and loss, and indescribable emotional pain….and quite a few are victims of abuse who ran away from their abusers, and had nowhere to go. Not all are as lucky as I. All of them need help and all of them need their story to be heard. But we’re so quick to hurry past them and carry on our shopping trips to notice, or even half-wonder what their story is…what the story behind their large and weary eyes are.
So please. I beg you…please please give a person a chance. If you’re in a public place, and can see therefore that you are safe, and a homeless person approaches you and says hello…say hello back. The fact they’ve said hello means they’ve already placed trust in you, and you should be honoured in that. Okay so maybe first they’ll ask for money, which you can choose to say yes or no to, but if you give them a chance, they’ll also tell their story, or ask for help, or just make sure you get onto a bus safely…. for all I know that man’s presence may have prevented me getting attacked today by an abuser – it’s very possible. And my presence prevented him from total meltdown, and gave him a small chance to talk. We both helped each other.
I am lucky. Some are not. Luck shouldn’t determine a person’s right to be heard, but it so sadly does.
Wake up, world. If you’re prepared to hear me, then be prepared to hear them…