How much would it cost to slap you around the face? What about a punch or a kick?
What if you have no place to live, no place to go… and it’s cold out.
Walking down Shoreditch to meet my friend Nicole, I spot a homeless man with a sign. It reads along the lines of: “Are you feeling stressed? £5 to slap me. £10 to punch or kick.”
I find Nicole and I know in my heart I can’t leave it. That is not okay. So I tell her what I saw and ask her if we can go back. We both want to help but we don’t know how. She asks “What can we do?”. How could we challenge the sign and prevent him from harm? – It’s not like we could give him somewhere to stay.
My mind’s guessing he created the sign for two reasons- to create powerful impact on passersby in the same way it did with me but also, and most sadly, for people to actually take him up on the offer. I’ve sat with people on the street before and whilst speaking to them been approached by some horrendous people thinking it’s acceptable to be provocative.
The only thing I could think of that might encourage him to give up the sign was to give him one that was more effective. At this point, I recall meeting a young girl in Liverpool Street. Her sign read “Smile It’s Free”. This sign alone made me stop my journey. The times I sat with her, I saw the impact the sign made on others. Most of which was positive.
I thought if we could get the guy some food to cover his hunger for the night, he won’t need to use that sign that puts him at risk. Then perhaps we could ask him if he’d be willing to hold up a sign saying “Smile It’s Free” to see if that works – at least for the night.
Returning we see him knock back some beer, probably to knock out the pain from those who take up his offer. We want to get him some food, see if he wants us to make him a sign and if he’d even be willing to talk to us about his experiences and why he made the sign. He’s speaking with another woman. We chose not to interrupt him but to come back.
The “Smile It’s Free” sign is ready. But by this time he’s gone. We walk around the block to find him. We can’t.
Inside I’m concerned that he may have stumbled across trouble because of his sign. Another part is hopeful that he’s found somewhere better to be than Shoreditch High Street.
During this I realised– a person living on the street who may usually be deemed powerless can actually have influence over the world around them. The sign he had held up could incite violence against him and to those empathetic, perceive the world in a negative way. Whether such a sign helped his individual situation- I don’t know.
A sign saying “Smile It’s Free” could have a profound impact – in a very different way. Hundreds of passersby could see this sign and for some of which it would determine how they perceive the world and also how they act.
We continue and find a man with two beautiful dogs. We ask if he’d like some food. “No thank you- we’ve eaten lots tonight. I’d just like some change- I don’t do drink or drugs or anything like that.”
I tell him we don’t have change but we can call and try and get you somewhere. I dial “StreetLink”. She asks me for details on where he’s staying every night. I ask. “Anywhere I can find.” She replies saying she needs know where he sleeps regularly to get someone out to find him. I reply: “He genuinely doesn’t know. I can tell you exactly where he is now though.”
“Is he in his mid-twenties?” I look at him and feel cold describing his features whilst he’s watching me make the call. “Maybe a tiny older- I don’t know. I just know he’s out here and wants some support.” Without the information of where he sleeps regularly, she couldn’t help.
“It’s okay. Thank you for trying” he said.
“I once saw a homeless girl hold up a sign that says “Smile It’s Free”. I know the impact that sign had. People saw it and helped her – maybe it will help you too. He accepts the sign, takes it from me and places it besides him.
As we walk away he points up to the sky and says: “I hope it finds you- good karma.”
“I really hope things get better for you – that you find somewhere.” I reply.
Inside I’m hurt. Whilst I understand that StreetLink teams may not be able to go out the same night to meet and support people on the street, there are so many homeless people on Brick Lane and around Shoreditch. Regardless of if that man was still on Brick Lane or not, there would be many other people would be there to help.
I’m trying not to get impatient without understanding, nor dismiss an organisation that I know does great work. I just need reassurance that more is being done to understand that the homeless do not have always have a regular place to sleep and that shouldn’t stop them in connecting with the local authorities should they wish to get help. I’m sure other callers feel the same.
We walk just three metres, another homeless person. This time a woman. A cheese bagel, a cup of tea and two sugars was her choice. I ask her for her name. She introduces herself, her face lit with a smile. She shakes Nicole’s hand. “Don’t worry, my hands not dirty.”
Nicole responds “No worries” says surprised. I understood the surprise. It’s the saddened feeling you get running through you realise that she actually felt she had to say that. I hold out my hand. I want her to know I want to shake her hand.
Two beautiful people we just met. Each interaction teaches me something new. This time the lesson is reality check. We can’t control what happens. We can only do so much. But the fact that we try is important. I wouldn’t dismiss organisations StreetLink because they couldn’t help but speak out with the questions I felt, and do it with an open heart. I don’t know if the first man that caught my attention would have swapped his sign, but I was ready to try. Believe in the power of sharing stories, and sharing lessons learnt.
Individually we don’t have the means to solve homelessness in London, but we’ll stumble across moments where we have the opportunity to take some action- even if it’s just shaking someone’s hand and reminding them that it is very nice to have met them.