I am frightened of homeless people. They remind me how all too easy it is in this world to fall between the cracks.
In a prosperous town in the South of England, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a woman sat this afternoon in filthy clothing and a sleeping bag in an alcove outside a derelict shop. I had heard that the best thing you can do for the homeless is to talk to them. Make them feel that they are not an outcast, a leper. Find out what their problems are and why they find themselves on the street on a freezing winter’s day.
Its not something I have done very often – speak to such a person. Give them the common courtesy of acknowledging their normality, their humanity. And it is not because I do not care. It is because I am terrified of ending up in the same condition and I look the other way. Irrational, foolish, selfish. What do words cost? Why not look at life as it is, face up to the horrors suffered by all too many?
I walked by her. I carried on up the street towards chocolate, diet pepsi, a cup of hot tea. A beautiful little cottage with heating, a lovely garden and dinner out in a seaside pub. But god knows how, I made myself turn. I wanted to know her story, I wanted to see whether I could add anything. I wanted her to feel like a normal person, not an outcast.
“Nowhere to go?” was my inane and tactless opening line. She was lucid, intelligent. She was not a wino; nor was she a drug addict. Her story was simple and sad. Her husband had died and she had been evicted from her accommodation (presumably for not paying the rent). She suffered from epilepsy but it appears she managed to control this illness since in better days she had worked, with enjoyment and pride, at several nursing homes. She felt she would be welcomed back there as she had a good work record but could not approach them in a filthy state. If she was going to work at a care home she needed to bath every day and feed herself.
And this is where it became truly scary. She had literally fallen between the cracks. She had no bank account and no formal identity and so the Benefits Office would not pay her what was due to her. She was being helped, thank god, by a charity called Torchlight and a doctor had offered her a letter of identity once she had been on his roster for two months. She still has a month and a half to go. Then, hopefully, the damn fools at the benefits office will pay her what she is due and she can get accommodation and food.
Shame on those Benefits people. Shame on the whole damn stupid system. Shame on me, shame on the whole damn human race for leaving people starving on the streets in the middle of winter. Here was a woman who, god knows, needed and deserved help. And yet the damn fools would not give it her because apparently she had no “identity”. Is not a body identity enough? Is not a starving mouth and a freezing cold woman an “identity”? Does a piece of paper from a bank, or a doctor, or some hateful government agency somehow make an “identity” whereas real flesh and blood does not?
Thank god some kind local had taken her in at nights and hopefully this will last until she gets her “identity” and her benefits. And, I hope, her job at the care home. In the meantime she has to sit huddled in the streets during the day, begging for her food.
There but for the grace of god go I. It could happen to any of us. It does happen to many.
We must stop this; we must act. Not just here in this privileged island, but everywhere. These people are not animals. The homeless, the starving and the destitute – they are you, they are me.
Surely to god we can do better than this?