A few weeks ago after a show I was standing around on the street with a friend having a smoke when a homeless lady approached us and asked for some money. There are a lot of homeless people in Shoreditch, and while I was living in The Dictionary Hostel we'd get asked at least a handful of times every day for coins or food, but every situation is different.
If I'd thought about this sort of situation a few months ago: being approached in the streets by beggars multiple times a day, often by the same beggars, I would have guessed that the tendency over time would be towards hard-heartedness. Less, “sure thing man, good luck”, slowly giving way to more, “Fuck OFF! Why would I PAY you to interrupt me?!” If I'm honest, there have been times when I've thought both – of course there have or else I wouldn't have been able to think of something to say for both examples. Overall though, I think being asked more has actually made me more likely to stop and listen to one of these guys in any given instance, and more often than not give them a little money.
So when this lady walked up to me and my friend outside the Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch, and asked for money, I gave her everything that I had in my pocket – 14p. That's not a lot of money, and I was looking forward to my first paycheque the next day, so the fact that it was all I had really didn't matter that much to me. After the previous three weeks of serious day-to-day poverty and walking to work and gigs because I couldn't afford the tube, and stealing food from the hostel kitchen, and counting the cents in my tips jar, finally my first pay-day was coming tomorrow: at this point the next twelve hours was just a Victory Lap. It still meant something though. I knew from my walks to work and careful area-scouting that the off license just after the Old St Roundabout sells oranges for 29p, I knew that because I'd been eating those oranges every morning on my 55-minute walk through central London to work. 14P: it's not much, but every penny counts.
Except maybe not, apparently, because as I handed her the coins, the lady held out her hand and looked down at them, then looked up at me and said, “look, I don't know what to do with this.” Then she held her hand back out, and gave the money back.
I have a lot of feelings about this, my first instinct right now is to write a big “FUCK YOU!” But I think after a bit of reflection that the reason I want to react that way has more to do with the fact that I felt personally slighted by her not accepting my charity. “What do you mean YOU don't know what to do with it? I've been buying oranges with only twice that amount every day for the last three weeks motherFUCKER! Are you calling me homeless? I'm not HOMELESS! I'M A MAN!” Etc. Etc... the first thing I felt when she gave the money back was that it bruised my ego, and I wanted to take her into a muted room and sit her down on a couch and communicate to her how that made me feel inside, and I thought maybe I should do it with puppets?
Okay that's dumb, sorry.
After a few days of thinking about it I realized I was being a self-important douche and that I needed some other people's perspectives on what had happened, so I decided to go straight to the source and ask the other homeless people around Shoreditch what they thought, so I did. A few around Shoreditch, one guy near my work in Soho, and another guy I chatted to while I was drunk at Old St Tube Station (is chatting to a homeless person while you're drunk condescending? I don't know? Do they want to be chatted to? Fuck, being liberal is hard... I'm tired of constantly flitting between feeling evil and feeling like a pussy... anybody?). My survey turned up pretty much identical responses the five or six times I asked, that this lady who asked for money from me but then when she saw the amount of money I had to offer turned it down, was rude, and awful, and possibly addicted to drugs. That sounds like I'm joking, I'm not. Honestly, that's what they all said, only two or three of them suggested the drugs thing, but they all said Fuck Her, basically, and that she was a piece of shit.
So back at the Fuck You thing again huh? Although now for a different reason than I first thought. And now for a joke:
“She gave me the money BACK!... are they ALLOWED to do that?! I didn't know homelessness was a profession open to wage negotiation, how do I contact the union?”
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!! Oh man! Phew, fuuuuuuuuunnnnYY!
Seriously though, once I tried to get away from my feelings on the issue, and started thinking about it more in terms of how it could affect other people as well, what I came up with was this: begging is a pretty sad thing to have existing in the world. Asking for money from strangers, it's a pretty awful thing to have to submit yourself to, and so when you happen to be that stranger, it's a pretty shitty spot to find yourself in because you're then in the position where you basically have to (get to?) decide whether someone else is 'worthy' of your aid. It's shitty on both ends, and so it goes pretty much without saying that to initiate that sort of behaviour, you'd have to be pretty desperate, like, totally desperate. Begging should pretty much be anyone's last option, they do it only because they need to. Have to. MUST! (*POW!* Synonym!)
If this lady really needed to be begging out there that night, if she was really so desperate for my money, or someone's money, some stranger, just any money so that she could keep on living, then she WOULD have taken my 14p. But she didn't, which means she didn't really need it, which means that she's out there begging when she doesn't need to be. I'm not going to guess at what her reasons would be for doing that, but I will say that there are plenty of people out there begging for the exact reason that I've just described – they have no more hope left in them, and they are all out of options. To disguise yourself as one of those people, and then run around Shoreditch asking for money on false pretences is pretty fucking disgusting. So yes Homeless Lady, Fuck You. Fuck You for effectively stealing from those people. Fuck You for effectively stealing from the people you've accepted money from. And Fuck You for making me think about you for A WHOLE FUCKING MONTH! FOR MAKING ME THINK ABOUT YOU MORE THAN I'VE THOUGHT CERTAIN ABOUT GIRLS I'VE DATED AND SLEPT WITH. I do not want to sleep with YOU, Homeless Lady, so FIGURE THAT OUT!!
Phew... finally, some righteous anger. Oooooh that felt really GOOD.
Finally though, a few weeks later I was walking down Shoreditch High St and saw a guy under the overground bridge, sitting on a milk crate, sobbing bitterly against the wall. Clearly homeless, broken. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him what was going on and he started railing off against people on the street that would come up to him while he was talking to someone like me who'd stopped to offer him some help, but then interrupt the conversation angrily saying that he didn't deserve their help. “ 'He's here every day!' they say” - is what he said, tearfully recalling how people who were about to offer him money had been persuaded away by other folk who apparently see him all the time. “But I only need 8 pounds to get into the hostel for a week and they wash your clothes and give you food and everything!” he wailed bitterly. I went across the road and split a twenty, then came back and gave him a tenner, meanwhile thinking “what the fuck hostel is this dude talking about and how have I not heard of it? I'm paying 15 a night... do you HAVE to be homeless to get that deal?...”
I've since heard from a bunch of people in the area that he is in fact under that bridge all the time. As soon as I stated telling the story about a crying homeless man at a party that night up the road in Seven Sisters, they knew exactly who I was talking about, and now that I remember him (ooooh that hurts, because before I made the effort to he was just white visual noise playing in the background. Ouch)... now that I remember him, I see him there all the time too. Crying bitterly, just like he was before when it made my heart hurt to look at him. But it doesn't anymore.
Homelessness is something I still don't fully understand. Of course I don't, how could I, I've never been homeless. I have read 'Down and Out in Paris and London' by George Orwell, which is a bloody great book by the way, you should all go read it so we can feel self-important together.... ugh STAY ON TRACK!
I've never been homeless, but I feel like I can empathize with feeling stuck in a shitty spot. Or feeling like money just keeps flying away from you and not knowing where the numbers go. Or feeling a little hopeless... so when a homeless guy (or girl, bitches can beg too!) comes up to me with sincerity in their eyes and asks for some help, if I have some coins in my pocket I'll probably, 50% of the time, grab those coins and hold out my hand. Because I still hope that out of all of them, someone is still trying.
Eugh. I'm an idiot aren't I? I'm paying for beer and heroin aren't I? Who knows man.