Some people don’t know how to give.
I was sitting at a freezing cold tube station with my friend Andreas the other night when this smartly-dressed black fella walked past and literally hurled some loose change at him. As Andreas scrambled to pick up the coins from the gutter, a younger black lad had seen what the first man had done. ‘Oi, that’s no way to give to homeless people!,’ he shouted after him.
Instead of being shamed, the first guy marched back, menacingly, towards Andreas. ‘Well give us me f*cking money back then,’ he demanded. Andreas sheepishly emptied the 62p he had collected in a paper cup back into the man’s hands. The second bloke reached into his pocket, found a shiny new pound coin, and handed it to him. ‘I’ll be back with more next time I see you,’ he told him. His kindness was the Alka Seltzer neutralising the acid aggression of the first passer-by.
I’d experienced it myself. A kind of angry form of giving which is actually an act of self-sabotage because it denies the giver that fleeting moment of satisfaction you get in knowing that you did something, not much, but SOMETHING to make this shitty world a little less toxic.
When I used to sing up at Newbury Park station, I did get some who would fling a penny at me. I can’t read their minds but I think it’s fair to assume they were trying to disrespect me. But what they hadn’t realised is that you can only disrespect yourself and if their intentions were cruel, then they surely succeeded. Anyways, I always picked them up. It meant I was a penny richer than I had been five minutes earlier. I would keep them in my back pocket as ‘lucky pennies’. I still pick up pennies if I see them lying on the ground. It’s my way of demonstrating to God that I don’t take for granted anything that I have and I never assume I will have money in my pocket. Because material security is just an illusion. I leave it to the universe to look after me and so far, it always has. I might have had a lesson or two to learn beforehand, mind.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that we as a society are so f*cked up about giving. At Christmas, look at all the effort that goes into making sure that you’ve bought a present for everybody who bought a present for you. That’s NOT how to give. You don’t give to get back. I know that the people who I give to, these days, will almost certainly never be in a position to give anything back and I wouldn’t want them to anyway. I always say to them, if your fortune turns, then pass on this kindness to another. As others have done to me.
But this world is warped. There are those who give with malicious intent. My mate Big Baz was given a sandwich which turned out to have glass in it. Luckily, after thirty years on the streets, he’s an old hand at the homelessness lark and he knew to check before he took a bite.
It was the sheer anger and hatred that certain people felt towards you for being broke which was really shocking. I’d love to know the psychology behind it. I suspect it’s because those people feel they are losing in the rat race and fear you because you represent what they may yet become. And they resent us when we smile because although we have nothing and they apparently have everything, yet they’re more miserable, anguished and resentful than we are. Gentle Andreas told me how a man had deliberately ground the heel of his boot into his foot the other day. It doesn’t help that Andreas looks East European and it’s been open season on people from that part of the world, from people of all communities, ever since Britain voted Brexit last year. White, black and asian Britons seem finally united in their disdain and often undisguised hatred of Romanians and others. Thank God Bonfire Night is out of the way, so Andreas will hopefully be able to sleep without having fireworks thrown on him. Still the celebration of the persecution and torture of millions of Catholics serves as a reminder that the UK is never more United than when it has a minority in its sights, be they homeless, East European, or both.
Which is why, more than anything, if you see us sitting in the streets, give your humanity to your fellow human beings, as well as a sandwich or a quid if you can afford it. Help them feel less alone, less exposed. Just by being there those few minutes chatting, you’re setting an example to those with sheeplike minds to whom you are either invisible or the outright enemy. You might even afford them some protection in those moments.
And if you see someone getting harassed by the public or the police, don’t get beaten up or arrested, but make your presence known. Shame them if you have to. Maybe take the side of life’s ultimate underdogs, like the second guy did the other night. Give them a hug afterwards and if it’s the police, politely ask them what they are up to (or do as I do and enquire how the fight against terrorism is going!). If they are acting aggressively, film them. Without the advantage of a locked door, which everybody else takes for granted, homeless people need the protection of the community which passes by. Just as that man showed in his short-lived and spontaneous reaction the other night.I don’t know who he is, but I consider him a true hero.