My office is just off Old Street Station. The area throngs with Shoreditch hipsters and naïve privileged kids using daddy’s money to fund yet another start up. Their lives look like magazine covers and their worries sum to getting their hair to stick just right or finding someone selling truly authentic, ethical coffee. Life is good, life is easy, life is superficial, life is at their command.
But Old Street also throngs with another community. A hidden community.
Every now and then, when I can find some time, I like to take a homeless person to lunch.
Today I met Daniel. He is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met in my life and it was a pleasure to spend time with him.
Daniel was slumped on the pavement of an out of the way street off Great Eastern Street. As I approached, I saw well heeled twentysomethings pass him by and not even register his pleas for some spare change. I sat down on the pavement next to him, said hello and held out my hand. He took it and beamed a wide, though tentative, smile. His arm, his hand, his fingernails were filthy. But, hey, hands can be washed, right? Shaking this man’s hand was not going to harm me. He is a human being and that is how we say hello to one another.
I chatted for a few moments and asked him if he would like to get something to eat. He beamed again, wider still.
We took a table in the garden restaurant in the achingly cool Hoxton Hotel, much to the consternation of some of the staff, and ordered lunch.
Daniel told me, as matter-of-factly as though reading the instructions of a VCR, that he had been driving one evening on the M5, through Gloucestershire. He collided with a van and the car flipped. When he woke in hospital he was told his wife and six year old daughter were dead. His two sons had survived. An all too familiar decline into alcoholism and debt followed and here he was. He told the story solemnly, but with no hint of seeking pity.
Lunch arrived and we began to eat.
I asked him to tell me about his life before. Daniel had served 8 years in the Royal Navy and had just recently left to take up a new job working with an engineering firm near home so that he could spend more time with his family. He told me of his escapades travelling the world and the things he had seen. The conversation was a perfect mix of fascinating insight and downright hilarity.
As we left the Hoxton, I gave Daniel some money and wished him a good day. He began to cry and little and said thank you repeatedly. We both gave each other huge smiles and went our separate ways.
As I left King's Cross this evening to travel home to Cambridge, I heard the constantly looping recording saying “Vagrants operate in this area. Do not encourage them.” This message plays every few minutes, every day of the week, eternally.
A quick comment to whoever wrote that message: They don’t “operate” you fucking idiots, and the use of the word “encourage” betrays your small-mindedness and lack of empathy for your fellow human beings. Get a grip.
Any of us, absolutely any of us, can fall. To think otherwise is obtuse and foolish. And if you do fall, would you not hope to be treated like a human being?
I, like most people I guess, do not do enough to help others. But I try.
I am always struck by the disgust on the faces of those around me and my temporary dining partner when I take a homeless person to lunch. Yet, there we are just laughing and chatting – what makes you think we are the ones to be thought ill of?
Some years back, we were hosting a national NCETM conference at the Crowne Plaza in Manchester. Whenever we would host these events (and I still do the same today), the buffet for hundreds of delegates always results in huge amounts of left over food. So, there I was, in Manchester, packing up all this left over food into bags. My PA and I then went out on to the street and started handing out sandwiches, cakes and drinks to the homeless people in the surrounding streets. To our astonishment, someone started shouting at us. I turned to find the hotel manager telling me that I could not give the food to the homeless because they were not insured for it to be used like that – it had to go in the bin. I, of course, told him to fuck off and carried on regardless. What has happened to humanity? How did we go from admiring the story of the Good Samaritan to worrying about being sued by some homeless people for giving them a stomach ache?
We can all fall.
Please treat every person that has fallen with dignity and the friendship that you would hope for.