This will probably come across as controversial…but who cares? I know what I’m talking about. If you see a homeless man or woman and you feel like helping them, buy them a beer…or better still, give them the money so they can choose whether to buy a beer for themselves…or perhaps they’ll go and invest in a hanging basket to tie onto the end of their sleeping bag…I dunno. But give them the freedom to choose which they would prefer. My guess is most will opt for the beer.
Shocking huh? Not really. Don’t you like a nice cold drink at the end of a long and stressful day? You deserve it, right? Sure you do…it chills you out and helps you switch off from worrying about tomorrow’s stresses. It’s no different if you’re homeless…
How about we turn your perception on its head. It was mine too. ‘They’re on the streets because they drink and take drugs.’ In most cases, that simply isn’t true. But some of them DO drink and take drugs BECAUSE they are on the streets…
So the night before, you might have been protecting a girl you just met, who has just landed on the streets, from getting raped in the night by pitching your sleeping bag next to hers. Then you sleep with one eye open for her safety, one eye open for yourself…so you’re essentially sleeping with both eyes open,
There was the night I met my Slovakian friend Pieter. He was one of the gentler guys on the street. He spoke little English yet had somehow managed to survive for five years. ‘Never forget what a strong man you are,’ I used to tell him. But he didn’t look it. My goodness, Pieter liked a drink and I bought him a few tins then lost touch with him for a few nights.
Then I saw him walking down Ilford High Road with tears streaming down his face. Remember, ‘You cry, you die!’. I went over to him and hugged him. He looked petrified and totally traumatised. Then this big fucker jumped out of the shadows and came straight for Pieter brandishing a knife. I turned my back on Pieter and faced the guy with my arms out wide to block him from getting near my friend. Pure bravado, with jaw clenched, I shouted ‘Get the fuck away from him’…He did.
Pieter staggered to the bus station and I followed him. I couldn’t get any sense out of him but reading between the lines I think there was a homophobic element to the attempted attack, alongside the fact that Pieter was just a bit too gentle for that world. He’s 38 but looks at least 15 years older. He drinks too much but who can blame him. The streets of London were not paved with gold for this East European migrant…but they WERE drizzled with blood.
At the bus station two other guys approached him and I saw him turn even whiter…he ran onto the nearest bus and shouted at me to get on with him. We got on, showing our sleeping bags to the driver who kindly let us on for free, understamding the gravity of the situation. On the bus we went round and round and round in a circle all night until it was dawn, while Pieter quivered like a jelly and I hugged him and repeatedly told him to remember how strong he is. I couldn’t let him give up.
At dawn I left him with another beer, bought a couple for myself and staggered to Valentine’s Park where I collapsed for a couple of hours. God that drink helped. It really, really helped. A few hours later I was due back in housing, preparing to be routinely insulted and lied to on a fruitless search for somewhere to live so I popped in Tesco Metro on the way, and bought another cider. There is an extremely smug and rude security guard in there who thinks it’s cool to insult homeless people. She picked the wrong day and the wrong man.
‘You bought your breakfast then?’ she scoffed hatefully. My head swivelled, exorcist-stylee and I knew instantly from her expression that she realised she had made a big uh-oh.
‘Listen darling, I was protecting a guy from being stabbed last night. A few days previous I was staying up with a girl who was frightened of being raped so if I want a fucking drink I’ll have a fucking drink and don’t think, just because you are stood there in your smelly uniform, that you are any better than me or any of my mates out there. Because you ain’t. You wouldn’t last five minutes out there honey, because YOU have no respect.’
This was not the response she expected. Nor the other till staff who all took a deep breath. ‘Now, say you’re sorry,’ I said. Much to my surprise, she complied. ‘Sorry,’ she said, not looking quite so big and hard anymore. It wasn’t enough. She hadn’t just insulted me, she’d insulted my family.
‘Because me and my ‘tramp’ friends pay your fucking wages with our booze purchases,’ I continued. ‘You might wanna invest some of your minimum wage on purchasing a deoderant. And get educated love, PLEASE get an education…’
I swigged from the bottle triumphantly as I walked from the store. Gargled some mouth wash and headed for housing…