Joy, who took part in our Real Benefits Street project, recently took part in the launch of a major new anti-poverty strategy. Here are her reflections on the experience.
I’d been in London for the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation strategy for solving poverty in the UK. An important event – I urge you to search the hashtag #solveukpoverty and find the video of the event.
On my way home and waiting at Leeds station, desperate for a sit down and food, I staggered to the counter at McDonalds and tried a second time to place an order.
It was about halfway through my meal that I noticed a man sitting at the table next to me, I say man, but really I’d put his age around 20. A young lad. He wasn’t sat exactly at the table, more beside it, hunched over. In his hands was a small burger, no chips, no coke. He was eating as though this was the first meal in days.
I’ve been around homeless people most of my life, but not in a long time have I seen someone who’s clothes were covered in that much dirt, his face was so caked in street life that the only expression I saw was despair.
I’d bought a bottle of Coke and a bag of mints in London. I took out the drink and mints and put them beside him, “something for later” I told him.
A few moments later I looked up and saw a man sitting at a table with friends, he’d seen what I’d given the young lad and smiled at me. I smiled back but my heart was heavy.
The JRF event I’d been to just that morning was about introducing long thought-out strategies to help reduce the UK poverty epidemic. I’d sat amongst council leaders, politicians, financial advisors and charity leaders. We heard about the poverty in families, how a child born in a poor area on average will die 9 years before a child born in a wealthy area.
The never-ending poverty caused by zero-hours contracts and low-paid employment that will see many people leading a life of low-wage work.
Then my friend, Mary, stood and spoke about her part of Leeds and the struggle of men in HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupancy), where the negative effects of living in a tiny room with a bed in one corner and a cooker in the other leave many of our men (and women) unable to buy enough food for the week.
A new poverty was mentioned, spiritual poverty, self-worth poverty, where a person has been beaten down so low emotionally that they don’t have the belief that they can escape. The loneliness of living in a tiny room, not knowing your neighbours, not having enough food, having to choose between food and warmth, little things like having to remember to take toilet paper with you every time you need the loo, trying to sleep with the sound of the fridge a few feet from your bed, not having the money or room for a washing machine and having no laundromat nearby. Each little bit of decency and hope being chipped away until you feel so unloved, so worthless that there seems no answer except death. This isn’t some third world country or some communist state, this is the UK, this is Leeds, Sheffield, London…
And here I am, sitting next to a young lad. The government could give him more money, but his addiction to the bottle of spirits hanging out of his pocket has too much of a grip on his finances. The council could (and should) build more homes so he can have his own bathroom to keep himself clean, but I suspect he isn’t yet stable enough to regularly pay the bills. We could even find a sympathetic employer but I think he’s a long way off keeping to a timetable. He needs something else.
Some will laugh at my feeble attempt of giving, others will smirk and consider it wasteful suggesting he will sell the snacks for money for alcohol. Y’know, I don’t care. Perhaps, when the alcohol has gone and the pains for more are beginning he will find a bag of mints in his pocket, most likely he won’t remember me, but perhaps he’ll think to himself, someone cared and perhaps a tiny spark will stir in his soul. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people do small, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness, the sparks will grow and he’ll find the belief that maybe, just maybe he is worth more than this.
The young lad gets up and thanks me, then staggers out the door, a little while later I’m outside the train station, waiting for my taxi to arrive. I see a man walking to the station, sniggering, as he comes nearer he mutters something and looks towards the row of luggage trolleys. There on the concrete is the young lad, asleep on the cold ground, thankfully it’s not raining. Already a station staff member is on his radio and the sniggering man joins the staff member, then a third man joins in the joke that is homelessness.
As my taxi pulls up I see a police officer arrive and know already this young lad faces the possibility of a night in a cell.
Every so often I come back to an old photo of me, a grainy image of a girl about the age of the young lad who sat next to me. I’ve not thought of the image for a while, but I remember it now.
When I talk about the spark in the lad’s soul I speak as someone who once had no spark. I once was that young lad.
Maybe I’m just so tired that emotions are getting the better of me, or maybe what is on my heart needs to be said.
If I hadn’t had small acts of kindness, people who became friends despite my unfriendliness, people who never saw me as worthless, I may never have made it this far.
We will always have people who snigger, people who tweet about about ‘benefit wasters’, TV programmes about so called scroungers, loud and foul-mouthed celebrities wanting to stir hatred.
But we must, always, have more people willing to stir the sparks of hope, and perhaps in 20 years’ time a man in his forties will be sitting in a suit in McDonalds, after a stressful and long train journey. Maybe he’ll sit down with his meal and put his briefcase beside him and look across the room and see a young lad with no spark.
And maybe, just maybe, this university-educated businessman will remember a night 20 years earlier when some stranger showed an act of kindness with a packet of mints.