HOW ARE YOU TODAY – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 5

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.

I SAW SOMETHING

One of the aspects of living in a large city is that you see things that just don’t happen in the rest of the country.  My parents, who live in a tiny village in the Home Counties, complain about neighbourhood problems frequently, and I don’t even bother comparing their plight with the myriad social ills that you can find in the middle of Manchester.

One of our biggest problems is homelessness. The council doesn’t seem to have control of the situation at all – there were numerous protests (read: campsites outside the Town Hall) last year, and the main result of this was the Council invested more in moving the protesters on. Social housing is difficult to find; the wait can be years. What is someone supposed to do in the meantime? And what if you have a crisis that needs to be dealt with now? Most of the shelters have closed down, and yet many of the people who need them probably wouldn’t fare well there either. Rules on behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pets, curfews etc, etc, just don’t fit with the erratic lifestyle of someone with a set of other problems that have led to their situation. And so the only place left is the streets.

We can’t solve the addiction and mental health problems by providing more homes or relaxing society’s rules. But we can make progress on homelessness by tackling those social problems that make it more likely.

There are a number of settlements around the city; along the canal banks, under the Mancunian Way, up near UMIST, and plenty more. These people live in clusters of tents, because it’s better than a shop doorway. Seeing homelessness has become so commonplace now, that if I were to give every homeless person in the city centre a quid, I’d easily blow a month’s salary in a day (and I have a reasonably well-paying job).

All Human Life Is Here
All Human Life Is Here: a tent village beneath the railway arches (on the left of the shot) on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, overlooked by the Manchester Hilton.

Living on the streets is not good for you, mentally or physically.  Statistically, the homeless are more likely than the general population to have ill-health generally, to have less access to healthcare, and to die prematurely.  I’m actually amazed that in the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been here, I didn’t see a dead homeless person; until last week.

I was walking towards my boyfriend’s house late at night, and up ahead of me on my route, I could see something that looked wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  As I got closer, I could see a man in a sleeping bag slumped in an unnatural position against a shop front.  He was lying in a way that one wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep in, and he wasn’t responding to either of the two police officers stood by him, radioing in what they’d discovered.  All signs indicated that this poor chap was no longer alive.

I don’t know what he died of, and it doesn’t matter much to me.  Another human has left this earth, a human who took a humble place and yet was still a part of the society that shapes all of us.  As I walked home, I felt shock and sadness, and I wanted to put down what I had seen on paper.  So I did what any self-respecting hipster would do, and wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

Tonight it is hot.
Hot enough for me to stroll semi-clothed through the city centre.
And yet,
A shiver runs down my spine.
In front of a shop that sells kitchens for more than the value of my one bedroom flat,
A homeless man lies slumped and still.
Two doleful police officers stand watch,
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
This is Manchester, in 2016.

If that man lives on only in my words, then a part of him does remain. I never even knew his name, and yet he changed me.