The Super Bowl is upon us. It is only mere days away. But that isn’t what I am thinking about right now. What I keep thinking is, “Am I safe here?”, “Will I be able to get some sleep tonight?”, “Maybe tomorrow I can find something to eat”.
Why might you ask? Because, as I write these words, I’m sitting in an abandoned building. The roof has partially collapsed but is doing enough to keep me out of the rain. The crumbling walls and boards are keeping the freezing wind at bay just enough to keep my fingers from freezing as I write this. Although I am glad to be where I am, for now, the temperature is only just above freezing, and the wind chill feels like it’s cutting into me. The guy next to me is asleep. He took some kind of drug. From the smell of it and the near comatose state he is in, I’m guessing the drug was heroin. As an educated health care professional, I’ll sit here and see if I can help him through the night.
You’ve probably read this far and think that I’m working; maybe for one of those homeless peoples’ outreach programs or something like that. No, I am homeless. This is my home for the night, and the gentleman I am sitting next to along with the other people that are here with me, are my roommates for the evening. Stay awhile, read on, and I’ll give you a glimpse into a world you have seen, but probably have never been able to understand. Maybe now you’re thinking, “how is this guy homeless?” Honestly, I’ve asked myself that a few times in the past 10 days. I won’t go into the why and how of it as some things are too personal. But I will share this world with you now.
You might think that all homeless people are drug addicts? Alcoholics? The severely mentally ill? Yes, some of the people I’ve encountered are like that, but not always. Many of us have fallen on bad times, relationship breakups, loss of a job in the economic downturn, and some have even fallen through the cracks after leaving the care system when they are too old to be classified as children.
I’ve had some water to drink today, shared by the man who was sitting on the other side of our unconscious friend. The cost of half a litre of water was 2 cigarettes. But that’s how we get by; no one else is really in a position to help us so we help each other. In the 10 days, I’ve bounced from the streets, shop doorways, even a church crypt and now an abandoned building in West Yorkshire, England. There is one thing I can say for certain- as the good people pass us by, pretending not to see us or mumble an apology is that in these 10 days I have encountered more human kindness than in over 30 years of life with these “good people”. That is how we survive. Only yesterday I met a man and his wife who were homeless. No substance or alcohol abuse, just downright bad luck cost them their house. With no relatives to take them in, they ended up on the streets. Looking up for just a chance to get back on their feet. These aren’t uneducated people, in fact, they are far from uneducated. It is the grace in which they accept their new world that struck a chord with me. A wise man once said “be the change you want to see in the world”; many of us could learn a lesson or two from that man and his wife. Nobody knows what is around the corner. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in this position, but as I have found, rock bottom can sometimes be the best foundation to build from. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, heck I don’t even know about tonight. I know I’ll sit here, ready to perform CPR on the man next to me if I need to, or offer him a cigarette when he comes around. After talking to many of my fellow homeless people, I find that many have turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the sheer terror of being outside and vulnerable to attacks from people who see us as less than human or as classless citizens. Many of the people tried their best at first, only to be let down by a failing system. A system not built to care for the people it needs to. I can remember my shock at returning a pre-paid bus card only to be told to keep it as the council just buy new ones! At around $10 per card before the fare is even applied. Money being spent on waste when it could be paying for support workers or sheltered housing. I can still remember the feeling of my first night outside and I am not too macho to admit, I was absolutely terrified. So scared I couldn’t move as I huddled in my sleeping bag provided by the local homeless mission. The next day I was in a daze due to exhaustion, I dread to think what people must have thought of me as they hurried past. I suppose I was fortunate that first night as it was unseasonably mild. The following night I would not be so lucky as snow, rain and gale force winds battered the town. I curled into a ball and tried to get as close to the church wall as I could for some protection from the weather. As I wondered if I would even make through the night, a homeless man I had previously encountered came by and offered his help to move me to a more protected area- the church crypt! Once I was out of the wind and freezing sleet, I felt almost human again. The man who came to my aid reminded me of a time only a few months ago when I had given him food. I racked my brain and finally remembered what he was talking about… in my old life, before I was homeless, I gave him part of a KFC bucket that had been over-ordered by mistake. As I remembered, him he smiled and wandered over to where he had a cardboard box flattened to make a ground mat. In this macabre haven, I slept safely from the outside.
After another night I was offered to stay a few nights in what the council calls a “crash pad”. Walls and a roof, safe from attacks from the “good people” and from the freezing Yorkshire winter. It would be home for me for a maximum of 3 nights before they had to move people on and new people would be in this sanctuary. The following day I went with this new family to a cafe that offered a free meal and a hot drink, in exchange for being offered drugs or alcohol counseling; I didn’t need that but went for my first meal in 3 days. I completed a risk assessment and was taken to a food bank. I sat and answered questions while a Christian woman sneered and then placed a small bag of essentials like bread and cheese stating “that’s yer lot for the month”. To the “good people” this wouldn’t feed a person for a week; to me, it was manna from heaven.
As I look at this new world I am in, I am taken with the acceptance these people face life with and the industry they show to the simple act of survival. An act many of us take for granted. I realised that so often we worry about the big things and things that may never happen. How we take our lives, homes, jobs, and family for granted.
As people shuffle by in fine clothes and try to pretend we’re not there, we survive. We are the change we want to see in the world. The change meaning we don’t care what religion we hold, what color our skin is, where or how we were raised. We have developed an imperfect perfection of living, where we reach out to people who are needy, hungry, or thirsty without the expectation of receiving something in return. We don’t offer our hand so that people see how “charitable” we are. We look after each other because it’s the right thing to do. Coming back to our unconscious friend, I’ll stay here by his side and do everything I can to help him see another day because that’s what we do. We each bring something to the table to help our fellow human. Each sunrise is a victory, it’s also the start of a new battle.
I’m not unique. This story is happening in every town and city in the world. From down here we can see you, all we need is for you to see us. (To Be Continued)