Words: Lucy Williams
Pictures: Mansel Davies Photography
It’s like some kind of horrible safari.
I twist in my seat and strain my neck to look through the gaps between the other people in the minibus. I’m trying to get a decent view out of the steamed up window, looking for signs of homeless people, as we are driven around the dark backstreets of town sheltered from the biting wind.
Our first task is to find an appropriate place to stop so that we can set up the soup kitchen. When I say appropriate, I mean a place where we are able to be seen by those who need us, but not that visible by those who don’t.
As the driver pulls over near a gathering of people by the entrance of the pool hall, I pull my coat around me and do the belt up as tightly as I can, as though this will physically thicken my skin to the pain and hardship that I am about to witness. I have to keep thinking positive, and that we will hopefully be able to offer some small comfort for just a little while, to someone who needs it.
When the doors screech open and I have to leave the warmth of the bus behind me, and step into the reality of their night, I know that it is going to hurt. A lot.
There is a bite in the air but I try not to show that I feel it. I have to get numb to the cold and to the whole scene as soon as possible if I am to be of any use to anyone here. The guilt of having a home to go to, once tonight is done, smacks me in the face every time do this, but I have to focus on getting the sandwiches and drinks lined up quickly so that we don’t get moved along by the police before we’ve had a chance to offer some small comfort, when people need it the most.
By now we have a well-rehearsed operation. Something that has evolved because we are moved along so quickly every time the police find us. We know what people want first. A blanket and one of the ham sandwiches.
When the ham is gone they move onto the jam sandwiches. Then it’s the Marmite, whether you’re a lover or a hater.
Ten minutes into the routine tonight and Paul, who I’ve got to know over the past month, comes up to me and loiters around. He wears a navy blue beanie pulled down to just above his eyelashes, and has tufts of blonde hair flicking out from underneath it. It makes him look like a 6 year old boy trying on his big brother’s hat.
‘Be a star and get me another ham, will you?’ he says.
‘Paul, you’ve already had one and we can only afford to give out one to each person,’ I say, trying to keep a polite smile on my face, knowing that he took two of the ham ones from Sarah next to me, quickly ramming one into his pocket.
‘We’ve got some spare jam ones, and lots of marmite left?’ I say, to his back as he walks off.
‘I only like ham!’ he barks back at me, not turning round and sloping off around the corner into the alleyway.
I feel shunned. I feel angry.
It’s that feeling you get when you sacrifice something for a child, spend money you don’t have, and go out of your way to buy something to make them smile, to just get told that what you got wasn’t right, and they want the newer version.
Doesn’t he realise that I’m doing this for nothing? Doesn’t he know how long it took to butter, fill, and cut all these sandwiches? Does he realise how cold I am stood here?
As I dutifully hand out the rest of the sandwiches I get to thinking. Why can’t a begger be a chooser? In what feels like two minutes, the box containing the sandwiches is empty.
My anger at the world fades. Yes, there are plenty of people out here who have become numb to society and who put up walls so high that they will never fully be knocked down, but I know that there are plenty out there who accept the small acts of kindness with gratitude, and who pass on this kindness when they can. I must not let Paul ruin what is a productive evening.
The last one to come up is Maria. She is painfully shy and just hovers near us. I have only seen her once before. She is heavily pregnant and sleeping rough.
She was abused and that is all she tells us.
She says this is her only choice. She has nowhere to go. Everyone is worried for her. We kept an extra blanket on the off chance we would see her again, and Sarah has some leaflets for her to try to get her into a women’s refuge centre.
I’ve come to learn that when I see one homeless person in the corner who is too shy, proud, or new to this then I should step forward, and I see the pain in their eyes that goes deeper than any I can imagine, I know that one of the others will see it and understand it and do something. Just as I am about to ask whether I can get her anything Paul reappears.
‘There’s no use asking for ham, they wont give you any,’ he says.
‘Paul, that’s not entirely-’ I start to say. ‘I’ve got a spare one if you want it though, duck,’ he interrupts me, to say to Maria.
When you see someone give up some of their first chance of food that day to someone who they think needs it more, you know that people are inherently good to the core, and that it takes a lot of evil to fully destroy someone’s moral compass. Paul smiles when she accepts.
As I watch them sit and talk the police pull up next to the minibus and tell us that we have to leave. Immediately! They catch us every time.
Everyone scurries away. Well, some do, some just seem to fade out, disappearing from view back into the dark corners of town. That’s what the police like to do, brush them away so that they can’t see them.
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t see all this,’ the policeman says to me, eyebrows raised.
‘Pretend you didn’t see what?’ I ask.
‘That I didn’t see you adding to the problem that we have in this town,’ he says.
‘How are we adding anything to the problem, we’re just giving out some sandwiches?’ I say.
‘Organisations like you mess with the bigger picture. Yes, I know you think you’re helping, but it doesn’t help in the long run. That’s what none of you lot think about, the bigger picture,’ he says.
‘Oh yeah, and what do you do about the bigger picture?’ I want to say but don’t.
How the Police deal with the Homeless
Oxfam volunteers are sent out to count the number of homeless people on the streets of towns and cities across the UK, with that figure used to help other volunteer groups but also handed over to the police. The police then compare figures and move people around according to where there is ‘space’ for them in the statistics.
For example, if the number of people spotted sleeping rough one night in Birmingham is 3 less than the average then the police will be able to accept 3 from a place that needs to palm some off so that they can report some ‘acceptable’ figures.
‘How exactly do we affect it?’ I actually say.
‘It’s quite simple,’ he says, patronising me, ‘it’s like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, if people didn’t keep throwing food out, they wouldn’t be there. If these people know that they can get fed by your handouts then they won’t have to do anything themselves to get back into society.’
I had told Maria that we will be in the same street in a week at 9.30pm. A blanket and a ham sandwich is not why she stays on the street.
I understand that there are bigger goals to work towards but I don’t believe that we should stop the small acts of kindness that can be the difference between getting through the day or not. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something.
Would the food offered by us not help the bigger picture of reducing crime where people steal for money?
Would the food offered by us not help the bigger picture of getting homeless people back into society by getting them through another night and giving them some energy to make some decisions?
Not only are we providing some food, we are showing the better side of society. We are not just spreading jam into a sandwich we are spreading a message about choosing the right way. It is not just an anonymous service, there is conversation, someone interested in listening to them, someone asking their name.
Attention that could get them through the night, to be able to take some positive steps the next day.
When I get in I unbuckle the belt around my coat, slip out of it and hang it up above the radiator, and by the time the kettle has boiled it all already feels like another world.
I sit down and cup my fingers around the warm floral mug, and let the steam take the chill off my cheeks. I drink it as though it is the only one I have had all day and as though it is the last one I will have, and try to imagine that feeling. But I can’t. I know I can put this kettle on for a tea of my choice to go to bed with. And I will probably sit in bed worrying the small stuff, like how my dress for work needs ironing so I will have to set the alarm ten minutes earlier.
We are all on a journey in the bigger picture of our life. Many of us strive for the big promotion, and focus on the job we will have one day, and lose sight of all the acts of kindness along the way, which helped us get through each day to be where we are. Who knows what pathway our lives would take if the sadness or desperation or pain that trickles into our lives for various reasons, at various times, wasn’t soothed by some safety net that did nothing for the bigger picture but was instant aid.
It’s all well and good to have one eye on the bigger picture, focussing on what you want for the future, but what will we really remember when we have reached that goal? What will be those moments that really made a difference to us in our darkest days?
I’m certain I’m not alone when I say that for me it will be those times when someone, often unknown to me beforehand, offered me some small comfort for just a little while, when I needed it the most.
Story Addition: The difficult issue of homelessness is not confined to Great Britain, with the authorities in the United States taking strict measures against even feeding those without homes. As reported here in Motherjones.com by @Hannah Levintova.