Note: The following occurred before COVID, before social distancing and the need for masks etc.
I’m part of a large group of good friends who meet for dinner every month or so; as there’s so many of us it’s sometimes a bit of a job finding a day when everyone’s free, and that’s before the headache of finding a place everyone actually wants to eat.
I’m happy to go with the flow, but my personal preference seems to gravitate toward the simpler end of the spectrum. Give me a burger, a cheeky Nando’s or a pizza any day and I’m happy.
The dinner was organised for a Wednesday at a fancy-ish restaurant in Central London. The type of place where prices are around 1.5 times higher and portion sizes around 30% less than average.
I’ll happily eat at these places if it makes it easier for the group, but truth be told, due in part to my monstrous appetite, I don’t much enjoy them. With a couple of exceptions, I rarely find the food to be much better than standard and usually the portion sizes aren’t big enough to satisfy me.
In usual fashion, I only somewhat enjoyed the meal, paid more than what we would’ve paid at a high street restaurant and (I personally) left half-full. I’ve gotten so used to this that grabbing a second meal on the way home has become an autopilot habit.
None of this really bothered me, but just in case you’re wondering why I’m going into so much detail on my restaurant habits, I promise it will become clear shortly.
After this I went for a drink with my lady friend and then made my way to get the last train home.
I was standing in the station concourse with ten minutes to my train, choosing a song to listen to and browsing which medium article to read, when I was approached by a somewhat haggard looking, older gentleman.
He looked in his late forties, very modestly dressed and had a greying beard which clearly was not how he normally kept facial hair. He approached me from the side in a very apologetic manner, both in stance and tone of voice.
He said how sorry he was to approach me and that he was incredibly embarrassed to have to approach me at all. From his tone I could tell he had had people previously shun him and walk away the moment he spoke, as is what often and usually happens when a homeless person approaches a member of ‘civilised’ society.
As he spoke it became clear very quickly that he was approaching for help. It was not obvious just by looking at him that he was homeless. His clothes weren’t tattered, he wasn’t carrying a blanket or pushing a shopping trolley.
He wasn’t drunk, wasn’t on any drugs, was not at all slurred in his speech and was clearly in his right mind. I also noticed how thin his jacket was, especially given how cold it was that night.
He didn’t smell at all (which, though it may be horrible to say, is a common indicator of homelessness), but he did look extremely tired and somewhat malnourished, with cracked, discoloured lips and a slightly sunken face.
I had consciously told myself a few months back I would try to listen more to people I wouldn’t normally listen to. I have often walked away when a homeless person has asked me for money, giving a mediocre excuse and apologising, when really I have no interest in helping them. Often because the person looks as if they’re drunk or coming-down, or because I tell myself they must have some personal culpability for the fact they’re there in the first place.
The chap continued talking through the surprised expression on his face at the fact I hadn’t immediately walked away. He spoke with an American accent, told me he was born in the UK but had lived in the States for many years. He told me he had been deported here as a result of a minor traffic offence in the 80’s, but due to its lack of resolution it had come back to bite him many years later.
He worked in a professional medical capacity in the states and had to undertake a change of licence here so he could practice. Before he could do that, however, the application required a permanent address. With no family in the UK and no access to a bank account he found himself without a place to live.
Often when approached by someone homeless there is the clear feeling of one-sided gain. A person wants something from you and appeals to your pity. Often with this type of approach, once the person knows they won’t get anything from you, their demeanour goes from polite or deferential to indifferent and sometimes even rude.
I remember one particular experience where my sister and I found ourselves in the position of having 10 fresh spare pizza’s from Domino’s. We decided to give them out to the less-fortunate so they wouldn’t go to waste, but more so to get that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. I was shocked when most people turned down our generosity. One lady outside a train station stopped me and specifically asked for £5 for the train, even though the last train had gone for the night. I offered her a whole pizza instead and she said ‘no, its cold, either give me some money or f*ck off’. That was quite an eye-opener (and quite the exercise in keeping one’s cool).
That feeling, when someone is talking to you purely for their own ends, is the same one you get with street-fundraisers, who are trained to elicit certain emotions in an attempt to make a person feel enough pity and guilt to sign up to give monthly donations.
Just as a side note, I have a particular disdain for aggressive charity fundraising. The homeless person asking you for money on the street, eliciting pity and guilt from you often does so out of desperation. Whether they intend to use the money for food, shelter, alcohol or drugs, it’s all in some attempt to escape the dire existence they find themselves in and make life a bit more bearable, regardless of their own culpability of their situation. The street fundraiser aims to (generally, not always) elicit these same emotions to hit their sales targets and get a bonus, paid for by you out of the money you agree to give them for charity.
Anyway, back to this gentleman. I was watching him as he spoke, sub-consciously analysing his expressions, intonation and body language. He had obviously approached me because he wanted help in the form of money, but I didn’t feel he was trying to guilt me or make me feel pity, nor did I feel that once he realised he wouldn’t get anything from me he would just move on to the next target.
I was also analysing him to detect signs of deception. I saw none. I have been lied to in the past and have told many a lie myself. I never used to get away with it, but like anything, the older you grow and the more practice you have, the better you get. As such one develops a sense for the signs of deception leakage, small tell-tales which betray a person is either not telling the full truth or is engaging in outright deception.
Watching, listening and feeling the emotions of this person, I felt no deception whatsoever. Instead, I felt desperation, disbelief and a dangerously close teetering on the edge of hopelessness.
The self-directed question of ‘how could this happen to me?’
He went on to say he had been living on the street for almost 2 weeks, trying his level best to earn £37 (around $49) to afford a consecutive 2 night stay in a hostel, after which he could legally claim the hostel as an address and submit his application to update his licence in this country and begin work.
He refused to start off begging. He went around shops and local businesses offering to do any job to earn the money he needed. He got nothing, and as time went on, it became more and more difficult due to the lack of sleep, food and energy.
He told me homeless people often have ‘territories’, certain spots where they sit, sleep or beg and if another person encroaches on those territories then you have trouble on your hands. He said he had been mugged twice in the past week and no one would help him, everyone would turn away when he spoke or asked for help. He also mentioned he was diabetic, and so needed a higher intake of sugar, without which he felt far more tired and weak than the average person.
I could feel that his faith in humanity had slipped to such a low level, about to fall into the abyss, being weighted down with that unshakeable feeling of hopelessness which exuded from him.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I know many people lie (myself included — or maybe that’s why I think it), especially when they need something to survive, everything in my being was telling me this man was genuine, but my programming and previous experience in these situations maintained my inherent scepticism (refer to the lady and the Domino’s pizza).
The train approached the platform and everyone else on the concourse started making their way. He looked at me and said ‘I think your train is here, thank you so much for listening to me, you don’t know what it means just to have a proper conversation with someone.’
I have never been touched by the words of a stranger as much as this.
I did nothing. Literally nothing, I had just listened.
I had my hand in my pocket, pulled out a £10 note and handed it to him. The look of gratitude on his face was unmistakable and he asked me if I was sure. I pushed it into his hand. I had to get the train, since it was the last one of the night, and we parted ways.
The entire train journey home, though, I could not shake the feeling of guilt.
Here was someone who was in desperate need. Whose faith in humanity was at an all-time low, who just needed a break, something so simple to get him started on the road back to building his life.
And I hadn’t given it to him.
The same amount he needed to get his life back on track, I had spent a couple hours before on dinner and a drink. I had more cash on me, and all I had given him was £10. What was a frivolous expenditure to me; going out socially, dinner, drinks, could’ve literally been instrumental in rebuilding another person’s life, and I hadn’t given it to him.
I got my usual second dinner on autopilot on the way home. I could feel the bitterly cold night air on my face on the ten minute walk home from the station. I thought to myself, ‘how can anyone spend a night in this cold; freezing, barely getting any sleep for fear of being robbed’. I got home and I felt sick, I couldn’t eat.
I could’ve helped.
I found myself saying it to myself repeatedly. I could’ve helped, and I didn’t.
It made me realise, on a basic emotional level, how we are far more alike than we are different. How we all need the same things and how so many of us just need a little bit of help to get back on our feet. Just one little push from someone who cares just enough to help us up on that first step.
We’re all human. We all require help, human contact and compassion. We also require within ourselves to give these things. We evolved as social animals and we still are to this day; we’re essentially a race of conscious monkeys, and contact and assistance from each other is a key part of that.
It’s even written into our biology — when we do something for someone else, as a pure act of kindness, without expecting anything in return, we get this warm, happy feeling which is elevated above all else, a feeling we can only get from an act of selfless compassion. This is your brain giving you a hit of feel good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) when you help your fellow human.
Because we evolved in social groups, helping and being helped by our fellow tribe members was key to survival. As such, evolution developed a way for us to feel good doing it, so we would do more of it. It trumps the feeling of fairness and satisfaction when we are fairly paid for a service we’ve provided, as that comes from the rule of reciprocity, which develops in us as a learnt part of social grouping.
I kept telling myself I should’ve given him what he needed. I cannot help feeling this a personal failure. I went against my humanity and let my ‘civilised’ societal programming take over. I could’ve helped, and I didn’t.
But, this is how we learn; from mistakes, from failures.
The next time I can help a fellow human, I will not hesitate.