This morning, a man with a dog walked onto my train and asked if anyone had any change so he could buy food, or pay to stay in a hostel for the night. None of this sounds new—I’m sure you’ve all seen it before. It’s always the same story: everyone looks at each other with contempt or they avoid any eye-contact at all as to not feel bad. And there’s a screaming silence filled with “oh dear”… “not again”… “go away already”… and sighs, and moans, and groans. A man across from me pursed his lips and gave me a look as to say “homeless people, am I right?” Even though I was in the process of fishing out all the change I had from my bag—which came out to maybe £1, but I gave it to the homeless guy anyway. And once he walked past us and out again, the silence resumed, and a sigh of relief filled the air.
I think about the homeless opinion often. I wish I didn’t—honestly, I don’t—but whenever I walk by someone on the street and keep the warm change I might have in my pocket, I get a pang of guilt in my stomach. Why? Because I’ve been so close to their reality that it hurts to see it true. Of course, I can’t help every homeless person I see, considering I live in a big city like London and I don’t have any money of my own. But why is it so terrible to help someone every now and then when you can?
I feel it when my friends jerk my arm while walking past, and I’ve listened to the reasons why I shouldn’t dish up some cash. Logical reasons? Yes. Valid? Possibly. But the one thing these people don’t know is what it’s like. I’ve had this conversation with friends and family members before, and thus far I’ve avoided any arguments simply by nodding and keeping my mouth shut.
“Whoever these people on the streets are—well—it’s their own fault.”
Blame it on the drugs, perhaps. But can you? There is one occasion, several years ago, that rings in my head specifically. I was walking to dinner and there was a man sat on the curb, just by the beach. He was covered in dirt and grime, burnt by the sun; clearly evident that he had been there for quite some time. The person I was walking with said, “Song, this is why I never give money to the homeless.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because look. He’s young, fit, and just too lazy to get a job and get himself off the street.”
From the outside, I can understand this. I get it because I used to think like this too. It’s their fault. But how do you know if he’s fit—or healthy even, if he can’t afford to feed himself? It may be true, that he’s lazy, but, regardless, how is he going to get a job if he doesn’t have a home? Or a phone? Or clean clothes? Would you hire someone if they turned up to an interview covered in filth and with nowhere to go? You wouldn’t, probably—let’s be realistic. But if you did, how would you contact them, when almost every employer will need to call the candidate? When you have no family or friends to help you, what can you expect yourself to be capable of?
There was another instance in Seattle, home to the biggest homeless population in the U.S., where I walked past a homeless veteran in a wheelchair. He was missing his legs, and the cuts weren’t properly cleaned by any means. My mother gave me a $20 bill to give to him, even if we were living off bread and can soup for the next week. I gave her a wide-eyed look because of how much she wanted me to give him. When we got in car she explained to me: how was he capable of working?
Sometimes you get unlucky.
“But Song, surely a dollar isn’t going to change anyone’s life?”
Perhaps you’re right—they aren’t going to move into a home, get an office job, and live happily ever after. But I’ll tell you what it does do.
It feeds them. And I don’t mean a 5-star meal, but can you imagine going days without a bite to eat? Just something can keep a person going. It can give them hope that will keep the ball rolling—a little motivation that will provide reason. And better yet, it can make their day. Honestly! When they thank you for the 50 cents you give them like it’s going to change everything, they mean it. Because it doesn’t happen every day. It really doesn’t. Remember the number of people that speed past without a second thought? There’s nothing like being helped. And by doing that, you’re giving someone company. Everyone wants to be reminded that they’re not invisible—that they exist—and being homeless can be lonely. No one wants to be alone. Not forever.
So why do you really think people ask for spare change on the subway? Outside the coffee shop? Because they have no other choice; because they’re desperate, and really, they have nothing to lose. They’re not there in attempts to ruin your day. I understand well when people shoo beggars off when they come into their stores; I understand that it ruins business. But I also find it important to understand why the beggars beg. Because they’re still like us. And I imagine every day that I could be that—and how people might look at me then.
To have lost everything.
It’s not all about money. If they are where they are, they probably don’t have family either. Everything is everything.
So yes, maybe there are people who abuse drugs and find themselves on the street. There may be people who beg for money and spend it on cigarettes. And there may be people who decided not to work at all and found themselves where they are. But everyone is different—in the same way that your story is different from mine. I can’t speak for everyone, but no one deserves to be abused for making a mistake, and certainly not for being unlucky.
This is not a plead for you to give spare change to the next homeless person you see. Or asking you to go make a difference in the world. I would only like to explain why I, personally, do help with what I can—even if I don’t have money, even if my family disapproves. There’s only so much we can do for each other in this world, and if I could change your view in the slightest, I would be ecstatic to know. We can only help each other.