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Time and Chance

By: Joanna Hioe

“Pray for the homeless,” said the bald hobbit-like man, pressing himself up against a prayer shack sofa’s firm back. It engulfed his small frame; the way London’s enormity swallowed its cardboard citizens. “Lots of homeless people die in the winter…” His blue eyes were steeled straight ahead, echoing the headlights of an incoming Tube, merciless and inevitable. I gave what I could, and then watched him dart into the rush of grey bobbing heads. His name was Rupert.             


After Rupert, it became clear to me that London’s homeless people had names, and stories. As winter approached, “Change, please?” turned from a quiet appeal to a desperate groan. It was time to act.


I tailed a food bank owner on his trail. Like Robin Hood, he would nab the last vestiges of café dinners and hand them out to the homeless at Charing Cross. Backs against the wall, we stood as a swarm yanked at the sandwiches and yoghurt in our hands and wolfed down in seconds. He brought me through the glamorous West End, where London’s top theatre and musical numbers paraded daily, pointing me to gate-walled cubicles where traces of homeless people lived on in broken beer bottles and cigarette butts. Amidst the laughter of polite audiences, blinding lights, and abundance of wealth, I felt sick to the core.


8 months on, I was a volunteer at the church-run West London homeless shelter where Rupert was a regular. The first time I went with a friend, we were both stunned to see over a 100 homeless people seated at tables, playing board games, and drinking coffee. “They are homeless?” he said. “Yes,” I said, remembering how Robin Hood had fished well-groomed, civilized-looking backpacker-types out from the crowd, and given them something to eat, which they received with grateful, trembling hands. Here, the homeless had a home.   


Rupert often pounced on me at the in-house coffee counter that dispensed dignity. I learnt that, at 50, he had a weak bladder. Thankfully, he had a far bigger heart. He was a compassionate man, with preacher ambitions. “See poor Kate over there, that little Nigerian lady,” he whispered, “She’s been scratching herself all day. Could you get her a new shirt, and a clean pair of socks? Please.” He wore courage like a garment that he shared with those around him, even the volunteers. “Sorry for moaning and groaning,” he said one day, noticing that I was frazzled from dealing with grumpy rain-soaked Guests. “We’re grateful for what you do.” Rupert’s genuine smile cracked the mask of polite British manners, and in his best moments, I saw a person held together by love.  


At the clothes cupboard, Anton bounded up to me. A Romanian man in his 20s or 30s, Anton wore a rubber face with every season on it, stamped with large boyish eyes and a crop of tussled hair. He had arrived from Romania speaking little English, and was lured by a cheating employer’s fake dangling carrot. London was indeed a place of abundance: but there was no job, no room for him here. Homeless in London, without a work permit, awaiting government aid, and too ashamed to return to face loved ones back home, he found himself sharing the tragic plight of many Eastern European economic migrants. Like a character stuck in a foreign film with no subtitles, it was nearly impossible for him to negotiate for a better life. However, the childlike charm that was in him also brought with it aspects of immaturity, worsened by the trauma of being homeless. Within two weeks of being hired at a café, he was fired for disobeying social codes, and sleeping overnight in places he was not meant to. I did not know his past, but I hoped, together with the other volunteers, that the little acts of care could help him adjust into the future.


I handed the socks to Kate, who had slunk into her usual corner between two stacks of chairs - a small space like her nearly invisible home on the street. I never found out Kate’s story, but the way she withdrew into her own world reminded me of a previous Guest – a Cameroonian beauty called Alice.  In her late 20s, Alice had left all she knew for love, and had found herself a plaything in the hands of her prospective English husband. She was to be married, she said, as hope welled up in her eyes, but -- never mind that, it’s over now. She echoed the whisper of many other Guests: I just want to move on.


When Kate removed her worn-out shoes, Rupert, who was listening in on our conversation, was alarmed at their broken state, and decided to take his off and give them to her instead. I was surprised. I knew he needed a pair of shoes, and remembered how thrilled he was that, finally, there was a pair in his size. I saw Rupert watch as Kate found the shoes a perfect fit, nod contentedly, and then leave without a word. “Thank you,” Kate’s face lit up, and I saw the life return to those large eyes. “Thank you” were the only words I had ever heard her utter. Though Rupert was poor, he made many rich. Perhaps it was his plight -- his growing up in foster care all his life without a home, his small build that made him a bullying target of thugs, his embarrassing incontinence that spurred requests for clean pairs of trousers -- that helped him to share in the pain of others and to give of himself.


You see, contrary to expectations, many homeless people on the streets are not primarily there because of their laziness or vice. Among them are virtuous, ambitious, and smart individuals whose plans had been rudely interrupted by misfortune. Rupert lacks the relational skills to integrate into the workforce, despite being in his 40s. Tom, an English gentleman in his 50s, found himself jobless when the shipping industry closed down overnight. Cynthia, a gifted German artist and art history major in her late 30s, had, like other homeless women, suffered at the hands of an abusive husband, and was now seriously mentally ill and alone. This mirrors the plight of many who try to leave the shelter after becoming homeless. The trauma of being on the street has so damaged their mental and social abilities that they are unable to function, says Jason, a shelter coordinator.


As social outcasts, homeless people are extremely vulnerable. With an absence of clear social identity, the need for ownership becomes desperate. Disproportionate rage-filled responses to insufficient clothing or food portions -- yelling, cursing, and incessant banging on toilet doors -- indicate triggers to deeper losses. Watching former academics and Ivy League graduates reduced to these childlike states was particularly shattering for me, as I was pursuing a degree in higher education at the time. I saw how time and chance could happen to all.


Food, safety, clothing, counsellors, resume writing, English lessons: these practical provisions that the West London shelter provide form the backbone of rehabilitation for the Guests. However, its ultimate aim goes beyond meeting physical needs. The Guests are restored. Each aspect of the shelter contributes to changing the script in which homeless people find themselves written into.  It enables them to rebuild their lives.


“Being in community at the shelter gives them a sense of identity,” says Grace, a regular volunteer. “The deeper issues are more about:


‘Am I respected?’

‘Am I loved?’

‘Am I known?’

 ‘Do I have value?’”


 Through the intervention of the shelter, the Guests find a sanctuary where they are disciplined, accepted, and respected. Ideally, this combination of practical help and emotional support gives them reserves of inner strength to draw from, allowing them to cope with negative messages they receive from their past or on the streets.


Perhaps it is inevitable that many homeless people die in the winter. But thanks to initiatives like the West London shelter, they will pass through London’s streets being acknowledged, helped, loved, and known.BW


Born in Singapore, with the cultures of colourful people in her heart, Joanna loves connecting with friends and family around the world. She hopes to put ideas, sounds and colours into the world that others can riff off to make new melodies.

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