I’m ashamed to admit it, but I washed my hands after I first met Tony.
You see, Tony was homeless – is homeless – and I have this thing with cleanliness. Perhaps I have OCD.
Anyway, whatever the reason, washing my hands is what I did. Or perhaps it was one of those oh-so-Western antibacterial gels… I’ve used them a lot.
But why? I mean, beyond the germs and all that, what does it say about me as a person? About us as a city? Surely I’m not the only one who does it? Hell, at least I stop and chat to these people… These people? Yuk. What an awful thing to say. But that’s just it.
I saw this thing the other day, on the BBC. You can check it out here. It’s a story from almost a year ago now, talking about Boris’s promise to cleanse London (for want of a better way of putting it) from its homelessness crisis.
Now perhaps to use the word ‘crisis’ is stretching the parameters rather. There are, after all, many countries and cities with a heck of a lot more homeless folk than London. But that doesn’t mean it should concern us any less.
I mean, what is London’s response to homelessness? What do you do when you see a homeless person? Do you buy them a coffee? Stop for a chat? Acknowledge them when they call out to you for help?
Before I sound too preachy, I’m not saying I’ve got my approach all worked out. By no means. I’m still getting to grips with just what I want my response to be.
After all, you can’t help everyone. There simply isn’t enough time in the day to buy everyone a cup of coffee, or hear all of London’s street people’s problems.
But it seems to me that it might not be such a bad idea to at least stop to think about these things once in a while. Surely it wouldn’t take too long for us to come up with some magic formula to make it all better… or at least try.
I’ve heard, and witnessed, a whole range of approaches. Some people give money, some don’t. Some stop for a chat, others won’t.
Some think that by buying someone food or a coffee, you’re just perpetuating the cycle. One friend told me Victor Hugo was so convinced in this thinking that he advocated punching homeless people in the face.
After all, my friend said, will buying someone a sandwich make them want to change their life?
But then I suppose we’re starting a whole new discussion about the reasons (and there must be many) that people find themselves on the streets in the first place. Did Victor Hugo think it was all their fault?
Or did he think it didn’t matter. Rather hurt a few feelings – or cheekbones – than leave someone to wallow in a life of self-pity and continued hardship… But it’s surely a generalisation to assume that is the mind-set of every homeless person in London.
From the ones I’ve met, they seem as likely, if not more, to share a cheery word, or positive reflection, than the average office bod off to suffer another long day behind a desk.
So, where does that leave me, one year on from washing my hands? Well, about where I left off, really.
I still make a point to chat to most homeless people I pass and to ask them about their day. I still might buy them a sandwich, or a coffee. I haven’t yet resorted to assault. (To be honest, I doubt I ever will. At 5’10 and about 10 stone, I’d be the one leaving with the fractured cheekbone).
And I still see Tony from time to time. He’s a gem. You should go say ‘hi’. You’ll find him outside Leicester Square tube station, in a grubby fluorescent jacket, hoping to make some pocket money by giving out directions.
Tell him that a journalist he once met finally got round to writing a piece about him. Tell him he’s sorry it’s taken so long. Maybe don’t mention the hand gel.
Image by Ed Yourdon courtesy of Flickr