Yesterday I spent an hour wandering around Covent Garden. I was in one of those moods where I wanted to buy something, I wanted to indulge myself, to purchase some retail therapy. Yet, shop in, shop out, I found myself growing more frustrated by what was before me, than inspired. I thought the clothes were too expensive or not as nice as the ones I already have and love. There was nothing to reflect the mood that I was in. Then upon entering one shop I noticed a homeless man intently stroking his dog. The clear intimate bond between man and dog was so striking and engaging that it made me wonder whether this was a tactic for sympathy that he may use (it was a cynical afternoon). However, upon leaving the shop, still frustrated, he remained as before, eyes fixated on the dog.
I stopped and asked: What’s your dog’s name? It was just one question but from there I knelt down and we chatted for some time. This man had some shocking and fascinating stories to tell and from the little conversation people gave him, he seemed keen to share them. I don’t know whether all that he told me was real but I can tell you, the cold certainly was real, something alone which warrants a certain amount of respect.
He was ex-military and had lost his financial standing when he had his identity stolen. Some time after he became homeless, a woman told him of a couple who had been evicted from the twelfth-storey in her tower block. The neighbours had heard the yelps and cries of their 8-week-old puppy whom had been locked in when the council came. The man told me that he had to go and get her. He climbed up the balconies of 12 stories where he found the ecstatic little puppy. After strapping her to his chest, he began the climb down. By the time he had near reached the bottom, he noticed a crowd of around 70 people gathered below. Touched by his bravery, they gathered £120 between them for him.
This story seemed a wonderful example of human understanding. However what he told me next, proved otherwise.
It’s not often you see people too emaciated on the streets, they must get by right? Having been sat for 12 hours in that same spot he had so far been given £2.40 and a burger for lunch which he added ‘I spent 5 minutes sniffing the bag, it was so delicious!’ Perhaps it’s bearable in the day-time. But then comes the night…
Just a few weeks back, he was asleep on the street when three university students set light to his sleeping bag. He showed me the dressing on his leg from the wounds which he claimed had been brought virtually down to the bone. The police came and the students have been taken to court. They are being trialled for attempted murder. Just because you’re on the street doesn’t mean you’ve lost your sense of justice or dignity.
Yet, this man, clearly weathered by the hardships of life on the street remained content. I asked him: since you’ve been homeless do you think that you have more or less hope for humanity?
He thinks that he feels we have more. Humble, he acknowledged that there are those worse off than he. Looking down at the dog’s head nestled under his arm, he said ‘and I’ve got her.’
Pressed by time, I took my leave and left him a ten pound note in the hope that he may buy himself a new sleeping bag (his was stolen when he recently had an epileptic fit). To an extent it troubles me everyday when I see people on the street, I think, though we may not admit it, it troubles us all. Yet, the best thing I did all afternoon as I went from shop to shop in Covent Garden was to sit down for 20 minutes to have a chat with a stranger. I cannot afford to give to every person I pass on the street, nor can I know what they will use that money for. But I don’t know where the money goes when I give it to Topshop or Primark either for that matter! What I do know is that I learnt something about his life and he was given another bit of reassurance in humanity’s favour. Today I think it is easy to believe what advertising tells us we need to be whole. However sometimes I think what we’re missing does not involve any technology or celebrity. We just need to be reminded that we’re not just human, we’re humankind.