I get caught up sometimes. On the surface, the reasons appear valid; the shirt I need to buy, the lipstick I need to replenish, the book edits I need to update and the next part of the story I need to focus on. All those tasks that seem so important they cause angst If I don’t complete them. Until you find yourself in faced with a situation that alters yours perspective forever.
My wakeup call came on a random weekday morning. Running errands, I stopped briefly to check my hastily written list and scanned the High Street. At first glance, they appeared invisible. The small figure, obviously female, sat huddled near a shop front. Pulled from my reverie and in the middle of closing my purse, I pulled out the couple of pound coins, headed towards her and dropped them into the plastic cup in front of her. I lingered long enough to smile, not seeking any particular reaction, but the one I received was unexpected. She flinched. This girl-woman’s first reaction when coming into contact with another person was to move backwards to protect herself. I paused briefly before moving on, sadness overwhelming me.
Days passed and I found myself thinking of her at junctures, when I ate, when I woke up in the middle of the night to the cool night air and huddled back into the warm covers and when I looked outside at the thundering lashing rain from the warm comfort of my bedroom. A week later, I found myself on the High Street again and purposely looked for her, hoping she’d found herself a better situation. But she was there, tightly hugging her knees wearing the same threadbare blue jacket. She looked defeated, hiding from the cold wind under her hood, like she’d abandoned all hope and didn't even believe in people anymore.
Feeling desperately sad, my first instinct was to outrun the emotion. Walking into the nearest shop and looking through a rail of sale of dresses, I felt like a fraud, liking a dress and not finding it in my size, when there was someone outside with real concerns, like were their next meal was coming from or where they could sleep tonight and stay safe. Then I asked myself what I could really do about it? The answer came a few seconds later. Without questioning the impulse, I walked to the nearest café and bought a takeaway roll and a cup of tea and headed back onto the High Street. I was nervous as I approached her, hesitating, before I lowered myself on my haunches near her. She immediately brightened and thanked me. Lowering her hood to reveal not the girl-woman I expected but a woman of about forty with long blonde hair and big blue eyes and when she smiled, the lines of strain briefly faded and she looked beautiful. Wanting to say more, but unsure of where to start, I touched her shoulder briefly and left her to it.
This experience forced me to admit a painful truth. I’ve always ignored homeless people. In the past, when walking past one looking hopefully in my direction, I would avert my eyes and look ahead or play with my phone. Anything other than face the uncomfortable reality of that person’s life. But once I opened my eyes, I saw a sad reality - they’re everywhere. Visiting Edinburgh recently, I was walking back to the train station when I saw a homeless man, laughing and playing with his companions, two large scruffy dogs who jumped around him, before settling happily back into his arms. Proving how animals in their superior wisdom see the person and not the prejudice. Facing my own preconceived ideas, I undertook some research to learn more and found out in the last year, 9,474 people sought help for homelessness in Scotland. They’re not all drug addicts or alcoholics either. They’re people, just like you and I. Who became homeless due to a dispute within a household, being asked to leave accommodation, as a result of action by a landlord or lender, non-domestic violence or discharge from hospital, prison or care.
For me, this experience has been eye opening and sobering. Leading me to a humbling conclusion. I spend far too much time worrying about what I lack and not enough appreciating just how damn lucky I am. I have so many priceless gifts, I never count - my health, my family, my friends, my writing, my job. My whole blessed life. Most importantly, I have hope. The belief there is enough good out there to travel around the world, twice over. An outlook strengthened when I came across the idea of suspended coffee on Facebook. A notion of customers buying a coffee for a homeless person, an idea that originated in Naples nearly an 100 years ago that’s enjoying a resurgence due to social media and has been instigated in cafes in Europe, the United States and the UK, most recently in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
So if I could leave you with one parting wish, I would like it to be this; offer a kindness. The next time you walk pass that person sitting on a bridge under a blanket, offer some goodwill whether it’s the cereal bar lurking about your bag or some loose change. It’s already out there with the army of volunteers that do such amazing work for charities like The Salvation Army, Centrepoint and Shelter Scotland. Let’s join them and create a chain reaction of good the world can’t help but respond to. Imagine living in a world where good news is celebrated every night instead of the bad. I do and it’s amazing.
In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, I’ve made a donation to three homeless charities and I’d be grateful if you would consider making a donation yourself. Another alternative is to have a spring clean and hand any donations into your local Shelter or Salvation Army shop. They’d be delighted to see you. Thanks! CK xxx
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