I was in the city waiting for the bus the other day, it was peak time – just after 5.45pm on a Monday evening and everyone was trying to get home, so there was a long queue at my bus rank. Suddenly I was aware of someone loudly talking to the young woman next to me. That someone was clearly a homeless person or if she wasn’t, she was definitely on the rough end of life. She was talking loudly and babbling on, asking the woman various questions about her necklace (which, as it turned out the lady had had engraved with a foreign inscription). Anyway, ultimately she was there to ask for money and soon moved on to this question to which the woman replied no, as did the woman after – me, and she moved down the bus line in turn, mostly just asking women. I guess she felt safer doing so.
As she moved past me I smelt the strong smell of alcohol on her, but her hygiene seemed good and she wasn’t thin and whilst she had a bit of a beer belly she was not in bad shape – not too thin, or seemingly malnourished. Whether she was homeless or not I don’t know. However, as she moved down the line one girl offered her a mandarin and another an apple. To the first offer – the mandarin – she considered and took it. But to the apple she joked that she didn’t need an apple, didn’t need food “does it look like I need to eat anymore”. Well, isn’t that exactly the issue? If she didn’t need money for food then maybe she needed it for a bus fare or for a place to stay. Who knows.
Sadly, the most likely story, of course is that the money is for drugs or booze. Particularly given the alcohol on her breath and the loud talking.
And these days of course, we know to not offer money to homeless or beggars – to offer them a meal or food. And that’s what people were clearly doing.
This actually put me to shame a little, firstly because I hadn’t even thought before the answer ‘no’ came out of my mouth, when asked if I had any change. How awful is that? Not only did I not even weigh this lady up for the individual human being that she was, instead classing her as a stereotype and dismissing her, but I also didn’t even stop to consider if there was in fact something I could offer.
Well, shame on me.
I thought about this for a while afterwards and realised that it was force of habit. Way back when I started roaning the streets of London or Reading on my own as a girl in my late teens – and by ‘roaming the streets’ I mean as a shopper or moving from pub to pub, whatever it might be – I of course had my first experiences of being asked for money by beggars and the homeless. My response was always to try and give something. If asked if I had a coin or two, I would answer honestly – yes or no. And of course, if I did, hand it over.
Like many girls at that age I had a belief that my good act could make a difference, that if we all acted like this we could change the world, or that maybe these people weren’t to be dismissed as some people cruelly did. I was going to be the one who was kind and gave what I could.
Then, one day, that changed. In McDonalds (in the days when I used to still go there) in the heart of London I was approached by an Arab woman with some other Arab women all standing around behind her. She was asking me for change, and claiming some kind of desperate need (I cannot remember specifically what, now) but I had no change on me, I only had a fiver.
What I tell you next, will sound absolutely ridiculous, but bear in mind I was maybe 17 at the time, and I was a bit of a dreamer until I was well into my 20s. Still am in many ways.
So, anyway, I said, in my honest way of doing things “I don’t, I’m sorry I only have a five pound note.” And she said she would give me change. I took the note out of my purse and handed to her with my hand out ready for my change. Stupid. And it wasn’t my lack of generosity that meant I didn’t want to just hand over the fiver. Let’s please bear in mind that I was at school, and yes living at home but my weekly spends were few and I was visiting London that particular weekend to see a friend so I needed my money for the train fares and food etc. My job on the checkout at Waitrose didn’t exactly amount to a fortune!
But of course the inevitable happened as she beat a hasty retreat with my money. So I started calling to her and people begun to look up from their fries and burgers. At this point I turned and loudly said to my friend who had just joined me at the table with her McChicken sandwich “She took my fiver” or words to that effect.
I didn’t get that fiver back is the long and short of it and I felt extremely silly, small and naive. I guess I learnt fast. What embedded the disappointment into my brain was that later on that day on the tube an announcement was made by the driver that there were Middle Eastern woman on the train claiming poverty and they were not to be trusted. As I was later lead to believe, at that time, and perhaps even still today these women did this as a kind of job – con artists working in a pack and often stealing from you whilst begging.
Since those days, or at least in more recent times, the con artists are more likely to be Eastern European in London, and there is a rising problem in particular areas of the capital.
However, the result remains the same in my little world, I stopped trusting any beggars and my compassion quickly turned to absolute suspicion. It didn’t help that a couple of years later my handbag was stolen from right next to me on my seat (also in McDonalds… clearly that place is bad for you in more ways than one) and so while it took me several years to be more vigilant about leaving my phone in cabs and pub bathrooms, I certainly became very careful about my bag… and beggars, in particular in London forever and ever more.
Nowadays I simply say no before I even think. But it’s so hard to know what to believe when standing face to face with some of these people. A real homeless person is, in my eyes very obvious. And this woman at the bus stop might well have been homeless but should I have spared her more – time? Conversation? Food (I didn’t have on me)? Or cash? What, really, is the right thing to do? And is it the right thing every time? How do you know?
I don’t know.
Maybe it’s about getting out there and volunteering within the community – getting to understand the different kinds of people in their different situations.
Food for thought. In the mean time. I guess I’ll be sticking to my cynical beggar’s belief that none of them are to be trusted.