I’m writing this blog post because it can be difficult for people to financially support all of the causes that they’d like to and it can be even more difficult for people to find time to volunteer or help out in any sort of organised way.
A few people have said to me –
Tell me how I can help because I’d like to – I just don’t know how! I don’t have much time and I don’t have much money so I don’t know what I can do.
So yeah – I’m going to write (a probably garbled) post about the ways that I think people can help. These are just my own personal feelings on the subject and I have no real basis for anything I say except that it’s what I feel.
Next Friday then I will be sleeping outside all night –
-but I am so lucky to have family and friends who care about me – who might even worry about how I’m feeling on Friday night. I’ll know that I have a home to go back to in the morning. That I have friends who’ll ask me how I feel, will empathize if I tell them I’m tired or that I was cold.
I can’t imagine what it must feel like to think you have no one to turn to, no one you can rely on, and no one who even knows how you feel – let alone cares.
I highly recommend that next time you pass a homeless person, smile, and stop and say hello. Ask them how their day has been so far – talk about the weather – anything!
It’s very humbling how grateful people can be when you’re just treating them like you would anybody and it might just help them to feel like they’re still part of our community and not quite so forgotten. It only takes a few minutes.
Of course there are people who don’t want to talk and there are people who are difficult to talk to but you get a sense very quickly if a person would like to shoot the breeze or not. A smile and an acknowledgment that a person is there and exists is sometimes all you can do.
I always feel like one of the greatest things a person can do is to remind another human being of their worth and innate specialness – and it costs nothing.
Often when I see a homeless man in the street and see the tired or expectant expression on his face as people walk by or the lack of hope or the yearning, I find myself thinking – ‘What if that was your brother and for some reason you and all those who love him couldn’t help? What wouldn’t you give or do to be allowed to relieve him of the pain and despair he must feel crouching there, at the mercy of strangers? What tears would you shed and what pain would you suffer if you came across your own brother in the street like that?’ It’s an awful thought.
When you see someone and imagine that person is a dear friend or someone you love it becomes easier to know what to do. When my mother or friend is hurting I act instinctively in whatever way I feel will help. It’s difficult to do sometimes but I do try to look at people with love first so that I can see them clearly and know how I should act. A good friend of mine pointed out that a homeless person might not be feeling those emotions – that I might be projecting. That’s a very important point. There are all sorts of weird and wonderful things buzzing around in all of our heads!
Of course there are so many homeless people that you can’t see. You won’t pass them in the street; you won’t be able to speak to them. They’re hidden away. Some people feel ashamed of the circumstances they’ve found themselves in; they’re ashamed to ask for money from strangers, they’re frightened. Sometimes they’re frightened of you and me and our judgement.
Sometimes they’re frightened for much more serious reasons –
I spoke to a young girl in Swansea once who told me that she’d left home because of her father. I won’t go into it too much but I felt entirely helpless. If I gave her money it was not going to help her in any real way. I asked her why she didn’t go to somebody and she said she hadn’t been believed (that is a ridiculously simplified account but here is not the place).
Here’s a quote from an Independent article –
“Women will know that sleeping in the gutter, or even on sofas, raises the sexual risks – of rape, reluctant sex and desperate prostitution. Some 41 per cent of female rough sleepers have prostituted themselves.
Females are likely to arrive on the street after a long, slow decline, stretching from childhood. Domestic violence is a common theme, and is a reason cited by some 35 per cent of St Mungo’s female clients as to why they finally left home.”
So there are plenty of homeless people who are frightened and hiding.
So if you can’t afford to regularly give financially and you can’t commit to helping out in shelters or with organisations like The Bethany Trust or Glasgow City Mission – how can you help?
Well I once learned an incredibly valuable lesson from a Big Issue seller. This is very personal and might be over-sharing but here goes.
My part in this story is quite absurd and I’m afraid it has to begin with the words – I was walking to my friend’s house with a hamster in a cage in my arms…
It was in Kelvinbridge where I lived at the time and I was heading along Great Western Road when I saw something a little way forward and on the other side of the road. It looked like lots of stuff in the road and something big and strange and I felt this peculiar sick feeling in my stomach and a sort of trembly strangeness and I was frightened to look too closely. I got to the crossing and a few other people were moving over when I got there.
It was a woman. There’s a reason that it was difficult to make that out at first that I won’t go into. She was mostly in the gutter beside the pavement. I had, and have never since, seen anything like that before. I didn’t know what to do. I stood on the pavement clutching this great big hamster cage and crying. I kept looking wildly about trying to think what I should do. I am a weirdo in so many ways and one of them is that I refuse to own a mobile phone. I couldn’t call an ambulance. There were other people there and I assumed they’d called one. I didn’t know what to do. I kept thinking over and over – what can I do?! What can I do?!
What did I do? I stood, trembling, crying, clutching a cage and watching. That’s what I did.
I started to think – is it wrong to stand here staring? I can’t just walk away from this human being as though it’s just like any other walk. I can’t just turn away from her – but is standing gawping worse?
There were a number of people there by now – most importantly the Big Issue seller – but I’ll get back to him in a minute.
I decided that I was unhelpful and ineffectual and that I had to be without the great big heavy cage. My friend was only 5 minutes round the corner so I suddenly turned away and rushed off to my friends and left the hamster with her. Then I came back.
Now to the important part of this story. The Big Issue seller. The man who taught me an important lesson that day.
I am a very privileged person. I am loved. I am financially comfortable though I haven’t always been. I’d seen death before – but not like this. I have suffered but they’ve been the sufferings of an extremely privileged person. In other words – I don’t know what real suffering is. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t know how to respond. There were quite a few people who stood around – just like me.
One person rushed to the scene. One person knelt down and held the woman’s hand. He spoke to her. He looked her in the eye. He got right down there with her. Now I don’t want to go into this too much but it was extremely difficult to look at this woman. I hadn’t realised just how fragile and strange the human body is. He looked and he didn’t flinch. I don’t know if she could hear or understand his words but she knew he was there. I don’t know if she could feel his hand but she looked up at his face.
When I stood about trembling with my hamster cage the woman was alive – she was there. When I came back from my friend’s – she was gone.
She didn’t die alone.
Just to make it absolutely clear how ineffectual I was that day –
- I didn’t call an ambulance
- I stood a couple of feet away the whole time
- I cried
- I did literally nothing to help the woman
- Because I have some mental health problems I compounded it all by becoming ill for quite a prolonged period afterward.
What should I have done? I should have done what the Big Issue Seller did. He looked suffering in the face. He responded in the only way he could by being there – being available. He made sure the woman didn’t feel alone – she couldn’t see all the people standing about but she knew there was someone with her who cared and was there. He recognised her and he recognised her suffering.
That Big Issue Seller has probably seen a lot of suffering in his life. Homeless people are over 9 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. The average age of death for homeless people still remains shockingly low at just 47 years old, and with the average age for homeless women being even lower at 43. This compares to an age of 77 for the general population. As might be expected, the causes of death for homeless people differ from those of the wider population. Whilst disease causes the vast majority of deaths amongst the general population, homeless people are more likely to die from external causes. There are much higher incidences of suicide and deaths as a result of traffic accidents, infections and falls are also more common.
So through that Big Issue seller I learned that the most important thing is to not turn your face away from suffering. If all you can do is acknowledge and remember – then do that. It automatically changes the way you behave and makes you act instinctively as you would with your hurt child or parent – with someone you love. Look at suffering, acknowledge it and remember it. Remember it when you’re walking down the street.
Remember it when you vote.
If you feel you do have time to help in other ways –
Glasgow City Mission do some amazing work and always need people to help out – http://www.glasgowcitymission.com/about-us/what-we-do/
Of course there is The Bethany Christian Trust who are organising The Big Sleep Out that I’ll be taking part in on Friday – http://www.bethanychristiantrust.com/
There are organisations across the country working tirelessly to make a material and emotional difference in the lives of people who have come up against desperate circumstances and I know they’d all love to hear from people who are able to assist in any way- big or small.