It seems like a lifetime ago now. In reality, it was just over 16 years ago now though it had become a faded memory until October this year whilst I was feeding homeless people in Sydney whilst on a short weekend escape.
As a young man in his early twenties, I was somewhat care free and laid back about life. To an extent, I guess I still am. One of my flaws is that I find it difficult to swallow my pride at particular moments and in late 2000, this was certainly the case.
It happened more by accident than uncareful planning. I had ended up on the streets of London for 8 nights. Why you ask? It goes back to my inability to swallow my pride and ask for help. In a nutshell, I had run out of money and the friend who had so kindly put me up for a couple of days was under pressure from his then girlfriend to move me on. I still remember her sharp tone of voice as she demanded, in her French accent that it “Doesn’t matter if he ends up on the streets! That’s his problem and is not mine!” whilst they argued about the validity of Brian’s suggestion that I stay on the the remainder of my trip, sleeping on their couch. She was right in a way. I could have phoned home to get some money wired from my parents but they were too poor I thought to help so I decided against making contact.
Instead, I chose to see what life was like on the streets of London. I had begun reading the romance that was Kerouac and Ginsberg so perhaps my sense of reality was slightly twisted? I didn’t care much for the realities of it all. I was a dreamer. A distant dreamer but a dreamer none the less. I had no idea of what to expect aside from the knowledge that, winter was encroaching and it would be cold. Bitterly cold.
The first night moved along smoothly. Brian had convinced his girlfriend to keep my suitcase with them so all I needed to worry about was a small bag pack containing my passport, a few spare batteries, my discman and a wallet full of CDs that held all my travel tunes. Oh, I had my toothpaste and brush because, regardless of where you are on this planet, it is always most enjoyable to have that fresh and crispy clean feeling on your pegs each and every day.
So, where was I? That’s right! The first night living on the streets of London.
I’d decided to head to Leicester Square as I knew there would be people and safety in numbers. After all, the last thing I wanted was to fall asleep in some dark and mysterious alley way and be woken to the fright of strangers mugging me. Mind, I had around £2.60 in coins and that was it. Brian had given me a £10 note which I duly used to stock up on some food supplies.
The days were easy to pass by as I was in a city ram packed with free activities. Art galleries, museums, free walking tours and the film institute at Southbank. London truly is an adventurous city to explore. Perhaps a little daunting at times but fun none the less. By the third night however, I began to see things much differently. By now my food supplies were out, I hadn’t showered in a few days and the charm of being a homeless man in London didn’t seem so exciting and romantic as Kerouac had previously pointed out in his writings.
By the fourth night I had begun rummaging through bins for half empty water bottles to drink from and waited patiently by cafes to swipe any leftover sandwiches people had not been able to finish. It is surprising just how much food our society is happy to waste on a daily basis. What was it John Lennon said again? There’s people starving back in China so finish what you’ve got!
I’d also began to notice the same familiar faces on the streets each night so I did what any other homeless person would do and befriended some of them. It was interesting to hear their stories and learn of their survival techniques. It’s an incredibly difficult life for the long term homeless. Every now and then there would be a food van arrive in a particular spot to help line the empty stomachs but in the year 2000 they were not as prominent as you would have thought.
i was beginning to meet a lot of damaged souls who had, for varying reasons, given up on life. It’s important to remember that homeless people are not all lazy numbs unable to or not bothered about getting back on their feet. Many of them suffer great mental health problems. In a way, I was happy to be experiencing a short stint as a homeless man. It was teaching me some harsh and valuable lessons of life. Most of all, it reinforced my belief that we should never place ourselves above those in need. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth are they?
By the time my final night sleeping upon the streets of London arrived, I had a new found respect for homeless people. They are not weak or cowardly as some people would paint them out to be. They are human beings and no different to you or I. This short lived experience is the main reason why I often offer a bit of food and water to homeless people or even just the act of lending an ear. I had eight nights of scavenging out of bins, not being able to shower and learning so much about the greed driven world we live in.
My advice to you? Regardless of your income or social standing in this world. It’s never too late to help a fellow human being in trouble.