Another post about language, but not in the manner of previous posts. I won’t be spouting poetry, or analysing turns-of-phrase. This is about communication, connection, and companionship. I’ve written before about Manchester’s homelessness problem (let me stress here that it is not the homeless that are the problem, it’s homelessness), which is something that us everyday folk decide to not engage with every day.
I cross the city centre every day. I live here, I work here, I go to the shops here, I study here, go to the gym here, go for a midnight walk here (more to follow on this seemingly controversial matter), live out my whole existence here.
At first, like so many other new Mancunians, I just accepted homelessness as an unfortunate consequence of living in a large city. But as the years passed, the economy dwindled, and the political climate became harsher; and it became more noticeable. Today, you cannot avoid it. No amount of averting one’s eyes can hide the fact that we have a monumental level of homelessness in our city.
|An integral part of the problem is the social deprivation that breeds the disillusion, unemployment, addiction, poor health, and non-participation that makes one more likely to become homeless. We cannot solve the rampant social malaise by putting a roof over people’s heads, but the preferred course of action is currently “do nothing”, which doesn’t seem to be fixing those problems either.
Anyway, back to language. I went off on that particular tangent to illustrate that homelessness is everywhere and most people don’t seem to give a toss about it (yep, sounds harsh, but if you can find any evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it – I’m not holding my breath). From my point of view, I do care, but I feel powerless to do anything. The structure of our society isn’t conducive to benevolence (I’m expecting John Galt to stroll in any day now), and as I said in my last post on homelessness, I would bankrupt myself if I gave just a tiny amount to each of the needy. So what then? Who gets my spare change? On what criteria should I pick and choose who deserves a meal or a bed tonight? No matter what choice I make, someone is screwed.
And because I can’t give to everyone, I apologise a great number of times per day to those doing the asking. And things started to happen. Often, I’d walk past someone, apologise, and be on my way. But I’d receive acknowledgement, and a word of thanks, or wishing me a good night (I have NEVER had a bad experience with a homeless person in my decade-and-a-half here; the thousands of society’s leftovers that I’ve encountered are just trying to get on, like the rest of us). And then one time in Piccadilly Gardens, a particularly persistent gentleman accosted me for more than the usual two seconds, and he told me a little of his story. I listened and chatted for a few minutes, and as we parted, he thanked me for speaking with him. “Most people wouldn’t” he said; and I don’t doubt that.
Nowadays, I give not just my spare change, but my spare time. I’ll take a couple of minutes to sit and talk with homeless people. I’ve learnt so much about other humans – many stories are tragic, but many are fascinating, and delightful. The elderly man who carries all his possessions in two shopping trolleys and some carrier bags? He was a historian. The dreadlocked Big Issue seller I met in Cambridge? He was a graduate of the University. Everyone has a story to tell, and no-ones is worth more or less than anyone else’s. When we walk on past beggars without even looking them in the eye, we reinforce the idea that they are “other”. I don’t always have money to give, but just a little human contact and a few words can make the difference between feeling human, and feeling cast aside.