Society Today, Vol. 1, No. 2, November/December 2005
This is the question on our lips when we walk past a man or woman huddled in the doorway of a shop front like some desperate animal, wrapped in a dirty blanket clinging to it for warmth, hiding a face smeared with grime and shame, and clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it.
In one sense we are bloody foolish to even ask the question. Shelter is like food and sex – we need it – and if we don’t have it, then we’ll look for ways to get it. Let us be frank but the vast majority of us, if we had to endure a seemingly endless run of cold and hungry nights on the street, would do almost anything to relieve our pain and destitution: we would become this desperate person, we would beg.
The question we should ask ourselves is not why but rather how, how this person came to this, to a life on the street. And as soon as we ask this question, we realise that the answers are multifarious and complex. ‘Is it not just about drink and drugs?!’ I hear some of you say. ‘The destitute person begs in order to feed his or her habit.’ No, the addiction, if he or she has one, is normally the symptom of a far greater cause, be this domestic violence, the loss of a loved one, or a specific psychiatric disorder, to name but a few. It is vital to consider the human story behind each person huddled in the doorway of some shop front.
I have met and come to know two homeless people. Both of them were forced onto the street, but once there, responded in contrasting ways: one aspired to get off, the other to stay on.
First, there was Lydia in Kensington, a petite woman in her early thirties with brown hair and kind eyes. She had been in a violent relationship. One day after a beating she left her flat with just her purse, which held nothing more than small change, and once outside, away from her boyfriend, decided not to go back. She immediately took herself to a hostel, but they would not admit her because she had no proof of who she was. She then considered asking the police to escort her back to her flat where she could at least retrieve some of her possessions including her identification, but no, she didn’t want to do this because she was scared that he, her partner, might find her afterwards when she was on her own and punish her. And so she was forced to spend her first night on the street. The next day she applied for social security, but again her efforts were in vain because she now had no permanent residence. Only after a full week did she manage to get herself on an emergency housing waiting list, and even then she would have to wait until her new paperwork came through, until she could prove who she was once more, and this could take up to two months. I met Lydia after she had spent almost seven weeks living rough, and though she might have been clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it she had immense courage and dignity: she did not openly beg but rather just sat quietly, head bowed. ‘I find it so difficult having to rely on the generosity of others,’ she said to me, ‘but I realise that if I’m to survive I must accept whatever I’m given, and that once I get housing I might then find work, and soon be back on my feet.’
Second, there was Brian in Victoria, a man in his late fifties with a mass of wild grey hair. An academic, he had taught and lectured in English literature at a high profile university. He had married in his early forties to a woman he loved deeply, she was pregnant, and they were due to have a child. But she died during childbirth, and the baby was stillborn. Torn apart by grief, Brian found it increasingly difficult to cope, and the bereavement counseling he received did not help. He developed depression, struggled to go to work, started drinking heavily, and was eventually made redundant. Unable to meet his mortgage repayments, he soon found himself homeless. I met Brian after he had spent some twelve years on the street. ‘I’m okay now, though,’ he said, after concluding his life story. ‘In fact, I’ve no desire to go back to the way things were. That was then, this is now. People think I must be mad, deluded or institutionalized when I say this, but I’m not.’ I got the sense of a man who was a little eccentric maybe, but was certainly none of the above. Rather, he had accepted his fate, what life had dealt him, and had found some peace. Now he spent his days in public parks and libraries, and his nights sleeping under a church alcove. And why disrupt this life and force him into public housing? I thought. He is content, and the least we can do for him is respect his decision, the way he has chosen to lead his life.
Lydia is in hostel accommodation now and looking for work. And Brian, well I imagine he is still pottering around Victoria. And so to the question one last time, Why are they begging?, well … we respond to what life throws at us in different ways, and get by as best we can.