I walked out of the station today on my way to an event on the future of feminism. I wondered as I was making my way there why I and others come to such events. I thought perhaps, we were like those of us who read literature in the illusive attempt to become “better people” or build an ethical moral system or whatever. I wasn’t entirely sure.
I saw a homeless guy sat by the railings before I crossed the road. I dug into my bag for some change as I approached and he said, “if you stop just for a few words that’ll be good”. Ashamed at my crass gesture I said “how’s it going?” And we started to talk.
Lee started to tell me about his evening the day before when he fell unconscious and the paramedics had feared he had a heart attack. He complained that no one had stopped by to check he was ok before he “went out of it”. I offered him an explanation that perhaps people were uncomfortable with their fortune and it was easier not to see the truth, the result of their silence towards injustice. He replied, now with a tear rolling down his cheek, “If they feel embarrassed, imagine what it feels to be the homeless guy.”
I, a little more broken by this world of limited choice, offered “it feels like you’ve had a pretty rough night, you could do with a hug?” to which Lee got up and accepted. He hugged me, at first reservedly, then, when he realised I was not gagging from the smell of what it is to be homeless, that I did not flinch at the possibility of “catching” whatever it is that must be crawling on him, he hugged me. He hugged me like he had lost a child I had found for him, like I was a father he was making amends with, like I was hope that had decided to come for a visit. And I, I hugged Lee like I do all the street children and the homeless men and women I’ve hugged before him. I hugged him as an apology for all the love that missed them, I held him as if imprinting some sort of love that could stay a little longer than the physical embrace would. I hugged him, that was all.
He was now sobbing and he told me that it was the first hug he had since his wife died three years ago in his arms. Snippets of Lee’s life unfolded… from his time in the army where he was “happy to take a bullet for this country”, to his wife’s battle with cancer, which meant he had to leave work to care for her, to her family taking the house that she had just bought in her name, to not knowing how to get his rights from the system, to his ex street girl friend who bought him a guitar that a guy at the hostel stole, whom he beat up and ultimately was banned from there and ended up on the streets again… and so it went on.
It didn’t really matter what the details of Lee’s story was. But, two things burned at my core as I walked away. The essence of this encounter. My crippling shame that even I, who is passionate about street kids walked by a homeless adult, not seeing past the dirty nails to the snapshots of all his beautiful memories, his picture in his army uniform beaming with pride, his clean shave in wedding pictures with a wife that left him too soon. I did not smell past the urine to the smell of freshly cut grass running under his feet as a child, or that baby skin that must have bought his own family lots of cooing and smiles. If he was still any of those things we consider “normal” many more would have stopped to see what was so terribly wrong. We would have been appalled that this young man was out here, putting out his hat waiting for our charity and putting up with our arrogance. I remembered how often I had said that the street babies we feel sorry for today are the same street kids that irritate us tomorrow and the same adults that we fear their thuggery in the next few years.
The other thing I went away with was how we have fallen prey to the neoliberal lies of choice of which we really had nothing of. We do NOT have a choice. There are no jobs. The government has no capacity or willingness, to absorb you if you are not part of what makes it able to govern you more tightly and like Lee said “if you fall off the net, nothing’s going to catch you.”
We must come together to think how we will deal with this? How can we live letting our governments get away with treating ex army men this way? I hate the army, I hate everything about it, but what I do know is that while it exists, it will need to treat those it lets go better. It’s a recurring theme that the homeless have served their country and that they leave with mental health issues and are therefore more vulnerable to homelessness. We need to come together and talk about why charities like Shelter have to operate on a priority housing system that means Lee who is physically fit has to brave sleeping rough.
Or of course, we have the choice, don’t we, to ignore every Lee, walk a little bit faster wherever he is. We have the choice to comfort our conscious by wondering why the hell he doesn’t just engage in exploitative waged labour like the rest of us.