So I gave up my ego, answered his challenges with ridiculous honesty, afforded myself as little pride as the circumstances and the relationship afforded him, admitted the seeming absurdity of my role (I'm here to help you, Kevin. How? I'm attempting to forge a community with the homeless. Why? Because I care), and maybe most importantly, listened to his stories and asked him endless questions. Eventually he stopped the mind games and he stopped hating me.
After a while he started making me cups of tea, shared his tobacco, and we started having authentic conversations. By way of friendship he offered me a tobacco tin given to him in prison by a man serving a life sentence. It's corny sentiment now, but in the insular world we were living in, where even sentiment and expression were ghettoized, corniness had currency. And we got along. We'd tramp around London together, making each other roll-ups, playing with social service jargon. I'd ask for his advice, ask him foolish questions and he'd make me laugh, though I could never return the favor. I'd huddle up next to him on the ground at London Bridge station, hoods and hats, letting the passersby buy us McDonald's tea, troubling the crowd with our presence.
This is part of the attraction of the street life: those moments when you're curled up on the pavement, freedom gear slung over your back, cocky in your rebel-as-loser pose. You're the outsider who can sit on the sidelines and laugh at the misguided straights rushing by with their ridiculous attempts at charity (go ahead, try and help me), and at the parade of journalists, urban anthropologists, volunteers, caseworkers, clergy who are somehow dependent on you. If Kevin were to take the next step up and, say, get a job sweeping the footbridge instead of playing homeless on it, all the power and attention he commanded would dissipate and people would likely pass him by without a word.
When I last saw him he told me he was going to steal a van and seek out a community of witches in Wales and eventually fix up a derelict cottage to live in. Before I left England I gave him my poncho and a tartan overshirt and we exchanged addresses. Less then a month later he died in his flat of a drug overdose. He lay there for three weeks, his dog barking inside the apartment, before his body was discovered.
For two months I lived as a volunteer in the Simon community homeless shelter in London. Or more accurately, I was a reporter acting as a volunteer, in the odd position of trying to alternately report on and alleviate the problems of the people I met. The idea was to see why people were attracted to volunteer work and explore the intersection where charity and need met, an area most famously characterized by Orwell in "Down and Out in Paris and London" with the comment, "A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor."
Is there a way to overcome that hate? To eliminate the inequality and the contrivance that usually surround the relationship between the caregiver and the cared for? How much of the volunteer's impulse to help is voyeurism, eagerness to get a good seat at the homeless freak show? Or is it the idea that being with people so close to the abyss somehow affords meaning to everybody involved? And how do you dispense charity when the people you work with know the talk, the system, the game, so well (one man on the street always hung a "Do Not Disturb" sign on his sleeping bag so the early morning tea runs wouldn't wake him), in an age when helping and denying help to the homeless have become as much a cliché as yet another article on how the other half lives during December?
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