One of my favourite cities is Hereford. It is not without fault, but it has a fabulous cathedral, some delightful quirky little shops, a number of rather good charity shops, wonderful riverside walks, a hugely impressive restaurant set in a church, and rather a good “vibe”.
When at a loose end, at the moment I have many, I get in the car and go there. On the way back is a lovely little market town called Ledbury which has a fabulous coffee shop in a hotel called the Feathers. A great place to read and do research, to say nothing of the excellent coffee and cakes.
Last night there was a story which I can’t seem to track, about a homeless man who became a police officer and is now tasked with relating to helping the homeless in a very creative way in the West Midlands. Inspirational. Driving to Hereford, listening to the radio I hear that in the City of Manchester, the mayor Andy Burnham has personally committed himself to eradicating rough sleeping. And huge strides are being made. Fabulous.
About a week ago I found a local vintage shop offering for sale an extravagant sheepskin coat. God knows how much it was when it was new, but it was affordable now. It isn’t easy to get coats that fit me because of my height. In other words they are mostly too short. It is substantial, heavy and even without me in it almost fills the passenger seat in my sports car. It’s so warm however that any part of my body that isn’t covered, i.e. my face, now feels cold when I wear it. It is not a coat to wear when the temperature is above 5°.
I’m wondering around Hereford, dipping in and out of the charity shops before a wonderful meal at All Saints. I’m sufficiently humble, but occasionally, exceedingly rarely, vain enough to pay attention to people looking at me. Sometimes I actually get annoyed, stupid though it may sound. It’s a bloke thing. It was definitely the coat. If you wish to remain anonymous avoid wearing anything resembling my sheepskin.
Of course, my awareness raised by Andy Burnham’s exploits, there are half a dozen homeless people dotted around the town centre. It is an obscenity. Rough sleeping in sub-zero temperatures kills people. We are an affluent society. No-one should be homeless. But what do we do? I would never criticise anyone for not giving to a homeless person asking for money. I certainly don’t give to everyone who begs, but I find it very difficult to walk past them. I remember reading in the Big Issue that the worst thing you can do is avoid eye contact, ignoring the person even if you don’t give them any money. So I make a point of at least making eye contact even though if I subsequently fail to give them anything it can make me feel like s***.
I’ve never been homeless, I have no conception what it is like to sit on the pavement looking up at people walking past, relying on their kindness to keep me sane. Yes, I’ve done the self-responsibility bit; they should pull themselves up with their own bootstraps et cetera, et cetera. I recall Princess Diana once saying that we should never condemn anyone for the state they are in. We know nothing of their situation.
So there I am lording it with my OTT sheepskin coat. A homeless man looks at me and says “What an amazing coat, you must be warm in that.” I was half drawn to him before he opened his mouth and in a nanosecond I just realised what it must have taken to appreciate a passer-by infinitely better off than him. Believe me I have engaged with and walked past enough rough sleepers to know the difference between a cynical ploy and sincerity. I scraped a £1 coin out of my wallet and gave it to him, telling him my coat was not fur but sheepskin, even though I could be accused of hypocrisy wearing an animal skin. To which he replied: “Well what about leather, that’s not like fur is it?”
Whilst his reassurance was welcome, I just felt a connection and a deep sadness for his plight. We wished each other a happy Christmas (I wonder what his will be like?) and parted smiling. I turned the corner and went into All Saints. After a delicious meal I reflected on what had just happened. I thought “I’m going to go back and give him £5, it’s the least I can do.” Just as I was about to leave a woman on the next table came over waving a £5 note and said to me: “I just found this under your table, I think it’s yours.” I had no way of being certain whether it was or whether it wasn’t, so I said to her: “I’m assuming it’s not yours-she confirmed it wasn’t- so I said I’m going to give it to a homeless person around the corner.” I’m pretty certain that contributed to making her day too.
So of course I went back to the homeless person, and gave him £10. I have no idea what it did for him but it gave me a high for hours.
My next venture was to go into the cathedral. Normally when I go into a cathedral the static of the world, the insanity that grips the planet, evaporates like steam. I am at peace with myself, even with those (which includes me) who preside over homelessness, and the world in general. But even being on the high from the homeless person, I just didn’t feel it, probably for the first time in my life. Very strange.
Not as strange as you might think, so when I sat down to reflect and “go inside” I felt an overwhelming emotional charge. Within 10 seconds I was connected, at peace and joyful. The elation of making a small, possibly insignificant difference to the homeless man returned.
What to make of all this? Well what I make of it is that my focus drops down from healing the world, to healing one person at a time. Handing out tenners to homeless people will not change the world, but it may begin to change their world.
I was not a fan of Andy Burnham when he ran for the Labour Party leadership, but these days I couldn’t give a damn who leads the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Lib Dem’s. And yet what he is now doing in Manchester should inspire us all.
A few hours on a cold December afternoon. A series of seemingly unconnected events. And my having an inner glow reminiscent of the old Ready Brek ad. of the 1970’s facilitated my largess and my connection. My connection to humanity. I have always had it, since childhood, but these days it has a meaning and resonance I have never previously experienced.
Life is bringing the most amazing people to me, again it always has, especially psychotherapy clients, but maybe I have finally found something else. A 20 minute conversation with a dear friend, an exceptional psychic and spiritual teacher last night confirmed everything I suspected.
I’m going to leave it there, suitably enigmatic and suitably ambiguous. I’m sure some of you can work it all out, bless you, but for those who can’t all will be revealed sometime next year.
And did I say you can have some or all of this too? The music may capture one reason for the plight of the homeless out there. Sending a vibe…
Jack Stewart, richly blessed and even more optimistic, 17 December 2019.