“We don’t do these things because we think we can change the world, we do them because we can not not do them” Martin Sheen
I am not writing this post to preach, I don’t preach, I rant, I shout, fuck knows I swear but I do not preach.
A couple of weeks after taking over the kitchen at The Old Crown I was making my way home via Victoria on a Friday night. Burger Breakout was about to launch and my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of what I had to do to be ready in time. I turned on to Victoria Street and was about to head into the Sainsburys Local to pick up some food when I noticed a homeless man sat outside with his dog. He wasn’t pestering passers by for money he was simply sat there with a tattered paper cup, stroking the dog’s head. I was almost through the door before I actually saw him, having been distracted by my own thoughts and the fact that the store was about to close. My first thought was that I would give him some money on my way out, I have never been someone who can walk past a homeless person without giving them something. Then I thought, what if he’s hungry, money isn’t much good to him if he wants to buy food for himself or the dog and the fucking shops shut. I decided I would pick up something for him and the dog to eat and give him whatever change I had left.
When I emerged from the shop, I stood in front of him for a few moments before he seemed to realise I had stopped for him. I handed him the bag and said there was some food in there for him and the dog. He seemed stunned, I had to gesture for him to take the bag several times before he slowly reached for it. Once he’d taken it I dug out the change I had in my pocket and gave him that too. I’ve never been one of these people who gives a homeless person money and then tells them “don’t spend that on drugs or drink”, giving someone a few poxy quid doesn’t give you the right to lecture them on how to spend it, your charity shouldn’t come with pre conditions. My attitude is that these people have survived on the street long enough to know what they need most at that moment, if what they need then more than anything is a drink or a hit then let them have it, it’s none of my business. This guy however didn’t seem drunk or drugged up, if anything he just seemed sad, sort of resigned. I offered him a couple of cigarettes to keep him going and lit one for him. He had made several attempts to thank me but I just waved them off and said it was no big deal, to be honest I felt embarrassed that another adult should be so overwhelmed with gratitude for what amounted to such a small gesture. Then he said something that I will never forget, he told me I was the first person to talk to him since Wednesday morning. To be honest I almost missed it, I was starting to feel awkward at all this thanks and just wanted to finish my own cigarette so I could flag a taxi to go home (on Friday nights I would get a cab to avoid sharing the bus with drunk office workers on their way home from after work drinks), when he said it. This guy wasn’t holed up in a flat with the door bolted, he wasn’t in some isolated cottage in the middle of rural Wales he was in the middle of a city of near on 10 million people and for 3 days not one of these people had even spoken to him. I looked at him as he gathered up his things making ready to move on somewhere, maybe to set up pitch where there were still people ( a closed Sainsburys isn’t going to attract any people who might spare him a quid) or maybe to somewhere for him and his dog to sleep rough for another night, and I thought how many other homeless people have the same story to tell, how many have been ignored for days, not just not spoken to but maybe not given any spare change as well. I felt I couldn’t sit in the back of a taxi simply because I didn’t want to endure a 30 minute bus ride with drunk office workers, that money could be spent buying food for people who may not otherwise have anything to eat. I almost pushed one of the Sainsbury’s staff aside as I went back into the shop, having made the decision that I would use the cab fare to buy sandwiches and give them to the homeless. I ignored the repeated “sir we’re closing” shouts from the staff member I’d barged past and started grabbing what sandwiches were left in the fridge before hurrying to the one till that was still open. I can’t imagine what the girl must have thought, having seen me almost force my way into the place before frantically grabbing up every sandwich I could carry but she rang up my purchases and gave me a very curt “good night”. Less than 2 minutes after having this bright idea I found myself back on the street holding a fuck load of sandwiches with no idea how I would give them out. I looked to where the homeless guy I’d been talking to was but he was now gone.
I started walking, working my way though the back streets around the station with no route or plan in my head. If I saw a homeless person I approached them and offered them a sandwich. I felt a bit silly, embarrassed even. I mean what the fuck must I have looked liked, this bloke who’s built like a shed clutching a near to bursting Sainsburys bag and holding out a sandwich. Some happily took them, others eyed me with suspicion and some simply ignored me so I left a sandwich on the ground near them and moved on. Some 45 minutes after I first saw that homeless man and his dog I gave away my last sandwich, this was actually the sandwich I had bought for myself when I first entered the store, and made my way to the bus stop to go home.
This became a regular Friday night thing, I would finish work and then go any buy £25 (the cost of my cab home) worth of sandwiches and start walking around giving them out, every week I would choose a different route, thinking that by doing so I was more likely to come across people I hadn’t seen before. I would stand and chat to some for a few minutes, it’s the same idle chat you have with a stranger on public transport or in a waiting room. As the weather got colder I began to feel that sandwiches were not enough, I wanted to find a way to give these people hot food. I eventually got in touch with The Simon Community who run a Street Cafe, giving out tea and coffee along with sandwiches donated by Pret to the homeless at St Giles Church on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I said that if I cooked a hot meal like a stew could they also give that out to the people they helped. They were more than happy to accept the help and we grew from 40-50 people being fed per day to over 200 on a weekend.
Luckily we have been helped by some wonderful people through Twitter, people like @AllThingsMeaty, @KellyCeeks, @ForzaWin, @BrunoFrenchBakes, as well as suppliers @3StarVeg and Melfar and venues like @HouseofWolf and @TheOldCrownPub who have provided the facilities for us to cook the meals not to mention @DaveEatsBurgers who like me has not only cooked the meals but subsidised them as well, and amazingly by a guy like Ben Spalding who when people were queuing to get into his restaurant for his Sunday Roast was giving us 40 portions to give out to the homeless and who when we were in greatest need told me to come and help myself to the contents of his walk in so we could feed all those we need. (I am sure I have forgotten some people and if so I am very sorry). Somehow through these people we find the food to feed the homeless that turn up every week even if it is a struggle, last week 80ltrs of stew went in 90mins and this week almost as fast, but we will attempt to rise to the challenge.
So why am I writing about this? Is it to make myself feel good, or attract praise? I assure you it’s not, you don’t feel praise worthy after given food to homeless people, you feel embarrassed that you can’t do more, that you can’t give them somewhere warm to sleep, you feel angry that there are so many more you haven’t helped, you feel frustrated that the problem even exists you even feel ashamed that when you’re finished you get to go home to your nice warm flat but you certainly don’t feel worthy of praise or accolade. So why then?
This is 2013 in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and in its capital city every night people sleep on the streets. London is a world capital, one of the truly great international cities. Last year the world shone it’s attention on London and it wowed them, it dazzled them, it made them fall in love all over again. Like a wrongly thought faded star, it trod the boards one more time and it brought the house down and all the while, amidst all the glitz and the glamour people were sleeping on the streets.
I said at the start that I am not going to preach and I am not, I am simply going to ask. I won’t ask you to change the world, just to change someone’s day. Don’t look at a homeless person and see a vagrant or a nuisance, see them for what they are, someone’s brother, someone’s daughter. Someone who when they were a child shared the same dreams you did of long hot summer holidays and opening presents on Christmas morning. Don’t think that they wanted to end up homeless, no one but no one ends up on the streets without a fight, without turning to someone for help and being let down. Before you rush past them to your tube, stop, picture yourself sat where they are. Imagine if someone flipped a switch and that was you, now imagine being sat there for 3 days and not one of the people passing by talking to you? A couple of quid, or a sandwich can make a difference to these people, but the very fact that someone still cares enough to take the time to stop and acknowledge them, that is what makes the biggest difference.
I’m not asking you to make a big difference, I’m just asking you to Make A Small Difference #MASD, I want to see that hashtag popping up so that it encourages others to make that their own small difference