I clearly remember the frustration. Things hadn’t worked out the way I had envisaged!
Let me take you to the eighties.
I was studying for a degree in architecture and taking my usual walk through Plymouth city centre. As I walked through an underpass I spotted a homeless man. For some reason that morning I didn’t avert my eyes and march straight pass. Instead I caught his eye and immediately reached into my pocket for some coins. In an instance I gave him a couple.
In retrospect it was a strange exchange. I may have mumbled a few words, but there wasn’t what one would consider a conversation. It was over in a flash.
He was my good deed for the day. I had done my bit. I admit though it felt awkward. I certainly hadn’t invested any of my time into really helping this individual. It’s clear now I was simply going through the motions.
Fast forward five hours later, having spent the morning working in the design studio. It was time for some lunch. I found myself walking back towards the underpass on my way into the city. As I approach the underpass I spot the same homeless man in the distance. He was sitting on the grass bank before the underpass. To my disdain he was slugging out of a bottle of whisky. I probably thought oh well it’s OK for some. Crazy I know, as if this man had deliberately chosen this lifestyle for himself.
It’s at this moment when I felt the frustration mentioned in the opening paragraph. I hadn’t bargained my gift being spent on alcohol.
I assumed the money would be spent on a coffee and perhaps a sandwich.
In fact I actually expected this to be the case, as if I had only offered the money on the provision this would indeed happen. Flawed thinking I know, but back then it made sense to me!
As a student with limited real life experience it’s fair to say I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate how easily someone can’t become homeless. Without a solid network, the change in lifestyle can be swift. Maybe due to losing a job or suffering from mental health. There are many reasons why someone can suddenly become homeless.
Since following Derek’s journey from North to South Vietnam on Periscope and supporting his goal now to help 50 charities in 50 countries he has taught me a very important lesson. It’s a lesson I could have done with knowing decades ago. Quite simply. It’s isn’t our job to NOT judge the homeless.
Instead of judging it’s a time to listen, hear their story, and in some small way show you really care. Take the time to speak and listen to them in a non judgemental way. It’s time to stop assuming you know their story by simply looking at them.
Here’s the thing. I personally speak to plenty of other dog owners when I’m out walking my bulldog Sid. So why should that change if I walk pass a homeless person. I should smile and say hello. C’mon Andy it shouldn’t surprise you to learn they are human as well!
I was struck by Derek’s words. It isn’t for us to make judgements about their addiction. Maybe the drugs and alcohol are the only things that get them through the day.
A few days ago I spotted a homeless man walking through St. Andrews with his ageing golden lab,
As I walked off the beach he was setting up his bed for the night in one of the brick shelters near the beach. He was muttering to himself and I immediately without hesitation started a conversation. I asked him how he was and what his dog was called. I showed an interest and within a minute or so he had told me about his circumstances.
Maybe it was easier because he had a dog. Isn’t conversation easier when you can quickly sense something you both have in common. I reached into my pocket and gave him a large handful of dog biscuits. We shook hands and I said I would see him around.
In that moment of saying goodbye, the enormity of how lucky I am struck me. I wasn’t scared or lonely. I knew I would be safe that night. He on the other hand was truly suffering. Life didn’t seem fair.
Derek has taught me the power of striking up a conversation, when others are walking past. Recently he took it upon himself to be homeless for 24 hours in Edinburgh. It was an opportunity to walk in their shoes. Using Periscope we were able to experience what he went through. This included his fight for survival and the disdain from others walking home.
It further cemented my belief I never want to be the person that walks past the homeless making ill-founded judgements. Instead I want to be the one who offers a random act of kindliness. I urge you to be the same.
Thank you Derek for one almighty life lesson.