We bumped into some friends in one of the new vintage-style hipster bars in the city centre, three friends grew to five, and five to seven, laughing and chatting and enjoying the music and some continental beers on one of the first sunny afternoons of the year. The road is full of new little bars attracting the late 20s to early 30s crowd, a craft beer pub, a sheesha lounge, a Caribbean restaurant and our vintage café-cum-bar. but it still hasn’t quite shaken off the seedy reputation from just two or three years ago when all these places were strip clubs.
One man catches my eye, in among all the men with perfectly kept beards chatting about the football savouring the newest craft beers in the rotation, the women in over-sized cardigans and miniskirts swapping tips for the newest baking fashions, and the stag party and the hen, I see a tall blond man in an Adidas tracksuit. He stands out with a short beard and a tiny sports bag. And he’s crying. I grab my purse and search out what coins I can find. I run out of the café using the open floor length window rather than the door, it’s too urgent for the door. But he’s gone. My friend follows – we find him standing slumped against the black-painted door of a disused office building, crying. I ask if he’s OK, he tells me that he’s just looking for something but everyone is refusing him. His accent and use ofrefusing rather than rejecting tells me he’s Eastern European. He reaches out with a dirty hand, his fingernails are yellow and brown and torn. I drop my three gold coins in his hand and go back to my friends and the beer and the music and the laughter, passing back through the café window again to my world.
As far as I remember I have believed that you shouldn’t give money to street beggars – they will only spend it on booze or drugs or something else that “doesn’t help them”, but this grown man is walking in the street and he is crying. Yes back in the boom years there were some people on the street who are there by choice, but since the economic crisis there are more and more people who are there by circumstance alone. I saw a documentary once that included a British business man who had been hugely profitable in Spain but made some bad decisions and left his family desolate, he scraped together the money for a flight to the UK, and returned with only the suit on his back and a small bag. He had nowhere to go, no family and no friends, I don’t remember if it was he or they that were too ashamed. And my friend told me about a father, left penniless through divorce, who was living on the streets begging for enough to buy his kids a McDonald’s every Saturday so they would never know his real situation. There’s a lady that reads a book outside the train station, I keep meaning to take her something but never think when I walk out of my house. Everyone on the street has their story and their own circumstances for being there.
And so what if they are going to buy booze? Their lives must be pretty tough if they’re on the streets in the first place, nowhere to sleep, being ignored in the street, people looking away, pretending they don’t see. If I what I give them buys two cans of lager, then for me that’s fine, it will either keep them a little bit warmer tonight, or they drink to forget their troubles for an hour or two. If what I give them buys a minuscule bag of poor-quality whatever, then that’s not really fine by me but once that money has left my hand I have no say, it becomes their decision and if that hit will make Sunday-afternoon-Adidas-man stop crying and feel better for a little bit then that’s fine by me.. If it brings them comfort in their hours, weeks, months of need, then so be it – I’d rather be the person that gives them that tiny comfort in a life of despair than the person that makes them feel like they don’t deserve to walk on this Earth. They deserve to be here just as much as me and that is why they are crying.