VIDEO: “Smile. It’s Free.” – A message from the homeless


11pm. On the bus home from work. I’m questionning faith humanity, my past, my present and my future. I just want to get home, collapse and sleep it all off.

In a daze, I see through the condensated glass windows, so clearly, cardboard with “Smile it’s free” painted on. A spark triggered inside of me. Not sure, how, what or why but this spark was compelling me jump off the bus and find out more. Two seconds to decide. It makes no sense to do so- it’s late, cold, and I wished to get up early the following morning. But in that instant the spark overwhelmed me. I did it. I bolted, down the stairs and off the bus.

Walking towards them on Liverpool St. I realise I have no idea what to say. Perhaps I should have thought this through a little more. “I like your sign” I said to them. And that’s how the conversation began.
“Do you mind me taking a photo?” I used that time I was taking it to think of what to ask next. They were incredibly welcoming; so it wasn’t difficult to start conversation. They spoke about their experiences on the streets. Sad stories. Lesley was kicked out of home when she was just 16. Tom lived rough in Essex and was told it’d be better in London. “we came but we’re worse off here” he said.

I asked about the sign. Lesley said she observed those around the city and realised they don’t smile. She wondered why – because a smile is free. They also mentioned since they’ve made this sign, no-one has pissed on them in the streets.

Smile it's free

I can’t even comprehend a human being urinating over another. But then I looked around. People drunk, falling, shouting, running across roads just about managing to not get run-over. Reality kicked in. This city isn’t nice at this time.

There’s a contradiction to expectations. The expectation that those in Liverpool St in the evening are civilized well-rounded individuals with stability. And the expectation that the homeless are reckless and dangerous. Those expectations were wrong. The opposite’s occuring.

The two reflect on reckless times. Crack. Heroine. But they’ve turned their back on the drugs now. A 26 day detox. The first five days of anguish followed by energy, health, wisdom and motivation.

Searching for a job is difficult when you don’t have a postcode. And they can’t get a postcode until they get a job. It’s a ruthless cycle. But they’ve not give up – they have a plan to create a savings account at the post office. These two are just searching for the life we’re all searching. They just have a little further to go.

Not once did they ask me for money. I reach into my purse and find whatever money could find to give them. I tell them I want to track what they’re up to because the messages they send out to the world is inspiring. They pull out a small phone they’d recently bought, took my number and said they’d ring and stop me. “No” I tell them, “I’ll ring you to save credit”. “We don’t know our phone number”.

I suggest for them to come to Lincolns Inn Fields on Sunday evening. Each week Children of Adam set up for 6pm and give food and drink etc to the homeless. I visited Lincolns Inn Fields the previous Sunday and how much their help means.

I thank Lesley and Tom for sharing their story with me, I tell them I will share it with others and I begin to walk away. As I walk, a feeling of discontent comes over me. In that moment, I realised, no matter what words I use, no matter how descriptive the adjectives are, no matter how many years of journalism I study, my writing will never be enough to convey their story. I stop walking and wait. Contemplate. Sigh. I know I need to go back. So I did. And I asked for their story once more, this time on camera so I can share with you. And here it is.

These two have more drive, more ambition and more sense than I could ever have. Tom speaks about safety- the fact that Liverpool street has 20-odd cameras. Lesley talks about buying food and the future she plans with her fiancé. They didn’t moan once, only spoke about what they want to do moving forward.

I’d like to draw your attention to 2.15. A friend of the man questioning Lesley and Tom over drugs, drags him away saying “What are you doing talkin’ to them?” Lesley’s response could have been to shout at the man. But she didn’t. She casually took it in her stride and said: “have a good night lad.” It takes a strong person to react so positively to such nasty negativity.

Following the recording I remind them how admirable they are for motivating themselves to get out this rut. I wish them all the best walk away and from a distance I stand a watch for a minute. This is what I see:

Inside I smile for them.

On a personal note, these two young people inspired me and have given me strength. Their smiles, postivity and resilience is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. In that brief encounter they taught me so much. I hope their smiles never fade and they get the opportunities they need to have that family, that home, that life they so clearly long for.

Lesley, I recall when you took down my number, you checked my name was spelt correctly. That was kind of you. I returned home to realise I’ve not checked your name. I hope you will forgive me. And perhaps if you stumble across this one day, you will get in touch and correct me!

Peace and Love always.

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