Today I met Peter.
He looked familiar as we made eye contact, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe I had walked past him many times and that’s why, but back then, he hadn’t really been a Peter – just another nameless face to avert my eyes from as I scurried past, pretending not to see.
Homeless at Christmas – it’s an awful thought isn’t it but people huddled in shop doorways or lying on a flattened box under that bridge you have to walk through to get to the station are a common site these days aren’t they. And one which most of us just avert our gaze from.
It makes you feel uncomfortable but it’s easy enough to brush it off, to think of homeless people as an entity to be pitied and ignored and then to carry on with your day. Just another one of the sad social facts of life right?
But not today.
Today, I was walking with Sophie and she was taking her sweet time as toddlers do, examining every stone and cigarette butt along the way. You know how it is.
She saw Peter, sitting in this unused shop doorway with his threadbare blanket and blank stare. I don’t need to tell you that it was absolutely freezing or the cruel irony of all the screaming consumerism being pushed in this mans face because you know it already and Sophie, she didn’t see any of this anyway. She looked right past the crowds of Christmas shoppers and the awkward side stepping of yet another homeless ‘no-hoper’ and made a beeline for the man sat on the floor, before I really had taken stock of what she was about to do.
“Hello man!” she announced (because it’s a very one-way conversation when you are 23 months old). And then she eyeballed him and gave her best smile. All teeth and massive dimples.
And then I saw it, just as I was about to pull her away, something, a little flash of light, a little flash of life in his eye as he looked up at this little pink-cheeked, blonde thing staring intently at him. And as she practiced her very favourite repertoire (not waiting for any responses you understand) “how are oo? Fine tank oo, good, chips today…” etc a little tear rolled down his face and I got it.
It was the first time in ages, he told me later over a cup of coffee, that anyone on that street had even looked at him never mind actually seen him as an actual human being. Kids have that unique ability to just strip everything back to basics and illuminate the things that really mater. Sophie just saw him as another person, someone to talk to, someone to show her latest rendition of “twinkle twinkle little star” to but certainly not just another nameless loser that had gotten himself into trouble.
I’m not going to pretend that there is some big blockbuster style movie moment coming here. There isn’t. We chatted a little, I bought him a hot drink and a sausage roll from the bakers across the way, I let him coo over Sophie and chat with her a bit and then we went on our way. There is no hero moment I am sad to say because often life isn’t like that and I felt at a loss as to what to really say or do to help to be honest.
But I cannot carry on with my day this time and forget about Peter.
The whole experience really shook me and I find it unbearable to think of him or anyone out there in the bitter cold tonight.
So I contacted Shelter, a charity who I know do incredible work in helping the homeless and asked them what it is we, as members of the public, can do in a practical sense to help a homeless person living on the streets and I want to share it with you so you know too.
Here’s what they said:
Homeless at Christmas – How to help
- Many people want to be able to provide immediate help to someone they see on the streets. An offer of a hot drink or sandwich could help you find out what other type of support the person may need.
- If you are worried about someone you see rough sleeping, sign up with Streetlink to help connect a rough sleeper to local homelessness outreach services. http://www.streetlink.org.uk
- Call 999 if the person sleeping rough needs urgent medical help.
- A homeless person can get advice and help from Shelter’s free helpline or online support – 0808 800 444 / http://www.shelter.org.uk/get_help
- Daycentres provide food, showers and warmth during the day – find information about what practical help is available for homeless people on Shelter’s website – http://www.shelter.org.uk
- The local council may help someone who’s homeless with emergency accommodation – Shelter’s online homelessness advice gives information on how to apply. The council might also provide emergency help if the temperature drops below zero.
- The cold winter weather is a particular threat for rough sleepers. A winter emergency shelter could provide a dry place to stay for the night– see Homeless Link’s website for the latest list of London winter shelters – http://www.homeless.org.uk
I understand that not everyone wants to stop. I understand that not everyone wants to engage with a stranger, homeless or not and that sometimes it can feel inappropriate or intimidating to do so. I hope though by sharing these seven practical tips, it may go some way to help you help those on the streets tonight if you do want to make some sort of difference.
Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention that you can support Shelter and the important and often life-changing work they do with homeless adults and children in numerous ways by visiting their webpage here.
For now though, I will sign off by asking that at the very least you can raise a smile or acknowledge the homeless person in that shop doorway. Please don’t ever just step over another human being no matter how or what the reason for being there. It’s Christmas after all and that person you are blanking and pretending not to see is not just another sad statistic.