Today a policeman questioned me in the street for talking to a homeless man. I felt a sense of injustice and discomfort talking to James. The injustice challenged me to write the experience down and demonstrate its importance to others, while the discomfort chided me towards forgetting the inconvenience of foreign poverty and return to the personal security of heavy library books. This is a realistic balance of everyday life, as we dilute rage and anger down too often into shallow sympathy; we are exacerbated only for instants.
What do you think of beggars? How do you treat them, what do you do?
I was stopped on University Avenue. ‘Excuse me, do you mind doing me a favour?’, the man asked. I stopped to listen. He appeared to be in his mid forties, had a scruffy beard and wore an enclosing track suit. His eyes were forcibly sincere – as if he was trying to persuade the listener to compassion. A story began. He had trouble selling the Big Issue. To receive 100 copies he required a deposit, and he was currently £20 short. He was homeless and his parents had both died from cancer. He had been in contact with social services and charities and the salvation army – but currently he felt lost. He was a recovering heroin addict and had been given two warnings from the police for begging. A third would possibly lead to a prison sentence. He asked for money.
There was something unnerving in the way he addressed me, a twenty year old, as ‘Sir’. Poverty was translating into an undue deference. I thought of Duncan Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, who when confronted by a similar situation cannot rationalise inequality. As a young boy his head burns until he ‘could not understand why he had any right to the £5 and this drunken stranger did not.’ And so he hands over the note. There are many reasons to give money to homeless people and many reasons not to. I don’t. While directly giving money to someone in need is good, there is greater assurance that Shelter will place all their resources towards alleviating the problems of homelessness and providing space for those who need it.
Why then waste this man’s time in false hope? There seems, to me, a duty for citizens to treat others with a common respect – to identify with and understand each other. James introduced himself, so when I spoke to him – and asked of whether he was getting help, where he’d been to stay – I introduced myself. Simple gestures at least allow ourselves to retain some claims to civility. ‘Get a job’, ‘Fuck off’ and complete ignorance are the usual public responses, he claimed.
Condemned by his past, condemned by society, he is also condemned by the networks that should exist to support him. Shelter are full; Barlinnie is full; the social can’t provide any more money. So he is reduced to sleeping rough and begging to strangers. The Salvation Army in the city center provide meals for a donation but he feels uncomfortable receiving their generosity when he can provide little – sparsely a donation – in return. At least through a conversation – you would hope – James shares a modicum of rest bite. Even if I could not help feed, clothe or home him, I was, in his words ‘the first person to give him the time of day’. Drops of compassion, no matter how insignificant, can aid the faith of others in humanity. Yet this was the greatest point of condemnation.
We had spoken for little more than two minutes. A tall man came over to us, flashing a Strathclyde Police badge round his neck. ‘Do you know this man?’, he asked. The symbolism and the reality of this struck me hard. In a practical sense, were I to purposefully or inadvertently report James’ begging he could go to jail. I did not want this to happen. More worrying – in a broad sense – was the victimisation this incident implied. I was speaking to him freely, it’s no concern for the police. Whether I know someone or not it must be my choice whether I speak to others. The police do not need to monitor me. Also James, someone clearly in need of help and support from the state, is instead pursued by the state. The rapid response of this inauspicious, plain clothed policeman was either a remarkable coincidence, or a tracking assignment. It is callous for society to criminalise the destitute.
‘He’s James’, I replied, ‘We’ve talking about the Big Issue’. The policeman took a few steps back and left us. I tried to gather a hopeful conclusion – to hear that James had somewhere to go, something to do, support & hope. However, it was clear that he did not and that without my financial aid he would leave – further away from the law- in attempt to find it.
I cannot provide a coherent analysis of class, inequality, alienation or justice based upon this incident. It makes me feel equal anger and discomfort. What is evident is that there exists a collective cognitive dissidence towards desperate poverty. Wishing it wasn’t there is natural but not healthy. This desperate inequality is our spectre.