I am in Costa Coffee, in the heart of Oxford Street. I have my nose buried in my notebook, hand scribbling lines of letters and symbols. My pen is hovering above the page for a second, and then heads back down.
Suddenly the air in the room feels different; heavier. I look up, and trail the gazes of the staff and customers. They all seem to focus on a walking target. A homeless woman just made her way in the store. The team look at each other, silently deciding who will escort her out; the customers clasped their pockets, ensured their bags were closed, and hid their phones from her view. She kept walking, until she was stopped and asked to leave. She looked up, turned around, and disappeared in the street. The song playing on the speakers was John Lennon‘s imagine, and for a second, while the rest of the room was silent, it was deafeningly loud.
Two nights ago, I was walking down Regent Street, lost in reliving a very busy day. I was wearing 4 layers of clothing, and still the cold found its way to touch my skin, kissing my bones with its icy lips. I was so wrapped around my own issues, I almost tripped on someone’s leg on the floor. I turned around to apologise, and saw this young man, wearing a dirty shirt and a hoodie, siting inside a sleeping bag. On his lap he had a book and a McDonalds burger. His eyes were closed, his hands unclasping from their bond, finishing praying before eating his meal. Behind him the models of the GAP window were standing still, looking out at a life they were not living. I took a few more steps, stopped, and took a deep breath in from my nose. I was going back to a warm house, a loving partner and a hot meal. I thought back at the problems that engulfed me minutes ago, and felt a small pang of shame.
It is amazing to observe how others react around homeless people; how we react around homeless people. The shake of the head when asked for money; the refusal to look straight in the eye; being busy trying to look busy. I read an article recently discussing homeless people during the Olympics, and how it is not good for the city’s image. It went on to explore suggestions, one of them to move them temporarily in other cities, as if they were furniture one moves for a dinner party. Throughout the article, they were discussed as props, inconveniences and trouble. Words that filled a paragraph on a page.
They are people. Human beings. They are made from the same skin and flesh and bones and feelings that make you and me humans.
I am not asking the big questions; debating whether or not to give them money if they ask; wonder what brought them to this state; preach about what to do. These are issues bigger than me, and I could never claim to fully understand or be able to answer them.
I am only saying that being human involves behaving in a humane way. Acknowledge someone’s presence, physically and universally. Be in touch with our own biases, and judge if we want to overcome them or not. I know I do.