I generally see the same homeless people every day when I go into my local town center in Carlisle, England. More often than not they are walking somewhere rather than sitting and begging for money as you might, stereotypically, expect. They walk with urgency, focus, and direction — as if they are trying to complete a mission on which their life depends. It was only after I got the opportunity to sit down and talk to one of these homeless folk that I found out what this mission was exactly. A revelation that brought a sense of sadness to me that persists to this day.
I was sitting on a bench outside of my local grocery store, smoking a cigarette, when Ben, a thirty-something guy wearing a tattered tracksuit fraying at the edges, approached me nervously and, almost whispering, asked: “Have you got a spare cigarette?”. I happily obliged and he took a seat next to me on the bench.
I recognized Ben as one of the many homeless people that I have seen frequenting the local town, one of those who are always walking somewhere. Over the course of our conversation, I found out that Ben had been homeless for ten years and that he didn’t foresee things changing for him anytime soon. Why? Because he was a drug addict, a heroin addict to be specific. He had been originally forced to leave his childhood home because of his addiction, forced out by his birth parents due to his escalating drug habit and it was this same addiction which, he told me, stopped him from accessing any of the help that was available to the homeless in this area, such as temporary housing or a bed in a hostel.
Ben outlined to me how his days generally revolved around two activities; the accrual of money to buy drugs and then the buying and taking of these drugs. Like a pinball, bashed from pillar to post driven by the force of this terrible addiction, he oscillated endlessly between drug-taking and drug funding. Ben told me that his story was not unique and that most of the other homeless folk of Carlisle had a drug addiction of some kind the fulfillment of which formed the sole purpose of their existence.
All of that purposeful walking now made sense to me. Ben and the other homeless folk like him were on a mission. The intent with which they walked portrayed the narrow-minded focus and obsession that this mission required of them.
Since I talked with Ben I have never looked at the homeless people of my town in the same way again. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the possibility that drug abuse was often a contributing factor towards people being homeless, but it’s one thing hearing about something through statistics on the news and it’s quite something else when you are confronted by the raw presence of it and all of the consequences that it entails.
I watched Ben walking again today, we made brief eye contact as he hurried past me but his eyes were vacant and there was no recognition of who I was. I turned and watched him walk into the distance, I wondered briefly which part of his daily routine he was currently on, but the thought made me too sad to consider for more than a moment.
I often feel like my life can become repetitive and boring, that I am trapped in a routine that my lifestyle stops me from escaping. As a Caregiver for my sister, a lot of the activities that make up my day to day life are dictated by forces outside of my control and despite times when I resent this control, I am paradoxically pulled towards the comforting sense of purpose that it provides me with. I wonder if this is how Ben feels regarding his lifestyle, paradoxically pulled towards it and repelled in equal measures.
However, there is an infinite difference between me and Ben, the thing that stops me from changing and pulls me towards the life I lead is, ultimately, love. Love for my sister and love for what it means to live a life devoted to caring for another human being. For Ben, his pull towards the drug-addicted lifestyle is not rooted in something worthwhile to his humanity, quite the opposite. Ben even told me that he hates heroin, but that he hates the thought of living without it a little bit more — just enough to keep him where he is, addicted, imprisoned.
To see a human life be reduced to a drug-taking automaton that moves with robotic efficiency between the different stages of drug funding, accrual, and ingestion is heart-wrenching. There is so much about life that I am not certain of, but one thing that I am sure of beyond any shadow of a doubt is that we, human beings, are meant for so much more than that.
I feel like I have to do something to help. I see Ben and his friends every day. They walk past me. I feel powerless. I offer a smile, that kind that has been forged deep within the furnace of my heart’s melancholy. I can’t force people like Ben to stop hurting themselves, but I can force myself to love them regardless. Who knows what this love might do? I know that when someone loves me despite my flaws I begin to feel a sense of freedom, I pray that some semblance of this feeling is provided to Ben and his friends when I offer them a humble smile.
Next time you see a homeless person, try to remember that beneath their stereotypically homeless facade they are a human being just like you. A human being who is far more complex than a superficial glance would lead you to believe. They have their flaws, but then so do you and I, we all battle our short-comings on a daily basis, only most of us manage to do it under the veil of a socially adjusted life. Just because I have a job, a house and a regular income it doesn’t mean that I have somehow risen above all forms of addiction or habits that are harmful to me. I am flawed just like Ben, how can I judge him? His deficiencies might be worse, but what barometer do we have to grade such things? And even if they are worse, shouldn’t this ignite empathy and compassion in me rather than judgment and condemnation?
Who knows what difference it could make to Ben if more people looked at him as a human being in his day to day life. We can’t decide how other people choose to act towards the homeless, but we can decide how we choose to act ourselves, the change can start with you. Next time you see someone like Ben, try to offer them a smile from the depths of your heart and who knows the impact that it could have.
Thanks for reading,