How Woody gave me a reality check and I gave away all the strawberries

Last week I went to watch an interactive theatre session for one of my clients, the Regenda Group, www.regenda.org.uk, delivered by Aftathought, http://www.aftathought.co.uk, over in Liverpool. I’ve known about their work for quite a while but not had the pleasure or privilege to experience a session. The topic was Customer Focus, which is a core value for Regenda and one the company wanted to bring to life, using actors to play out real life customer experience. It was very moving, powerful, funny, thought-provoking and gave me, personally, a reality check at a deep and fundamental level.

When I finished university, I did a six month piece of voluntary work for a very small charity called Women and Children in Temporary Accommodation (WITA) in Coventry. WITA was run by an amazing, and slightly crazy, ex-nun called Mary who was deeply concerned about the impact on children and women, living in hostels and B & B’s, usually because they were fleeing domestic violence. I supported Mary by researching family experiences, interviewing dozens of women in short and longer stay accommodation. It was enlightening, frightening and certainly set me on a career path of cementing my desire to work in social housing. It wasn’t even called social housing at the time but it was a deeply formative experience. One of the most memorable interviews I did was with a woman who had had a life full of many ups and downs, lots of downs. She’d lost her kids due to her drug and alcohol problems and was back in a hostel, trying to dry out, after a period on the streets. One of the things she said to me that really stuck with me was “At least in here people look at you and say hello. On the streets, I could go all day and no-one even noticed me.”

Twenty five years later, a whole career behind me in terms of working in social housing, and an almost identical line from an actor playing the part of a homeless man, Woody, accessing services provided by Petrus, a homelessness support charity who have just joined the Regenda Group. He said something like “no-one sees me, you can all ignore me” and what I realised later is that triggered a memory of the interview in the hostel, and I was moved to tears. The actor’s skill in portraying the character was so accurate, so close to the many, many people I have worked with over the years who have lived on the streets, experienced all sorts of physical, emotional and mental health issues and yet somehow have survived.

Later that day I had to walk through Manchester after a meeting to get back to my car. I’d stopped and bought some punnets of strawberries to take home, two for a pound and the woman must have liked me as she gave me 4 for a pound! It was busy, it was hot, town was full of German football fans who’d come for a match against City. I had a load of stuff to take care of when I got home and I wanted to avoid the massive rainstorm I could feel was brewing.

But it took me over an hour to walk the length of Deansgate and get back to my car.  I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like to be sitting on the street, begging, or selling the Big Issue or just sitting and have dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people each day walk by and ignore you. Look the other way, pretend not to see you. Imagine that, imagine being ignored day in, day out, when your life is in a place that most of us wouldn’t be able to cope with and you are in the middle of a wealthy, vibrant, busy city.

So I stopped and spoke to every homeless person I saw. I gave away all the strawberries. I gave all my money. But more importantly for me, and what I wanted to give, was my time, my energy, my attention. I asked each person about themselves, their name, where they were sleeping, were they getting some help. Every person I spoke to, male and female, had a tale that makes me despair for our system. And every person was deeply grateful, and expressed it, that I bothered to stop and talk. I didn’t want their gratitude but it made me realise how much eye contact, a smile, a friendly voice, matters when people are struggling to even survive. Homelessness is a complex issue, I get that, many people have complex needs and lifestyles we would find chaotic. There appears not to be a simple solution in so many cases but just acknowledging someone would seem to make a difference.

 

My reality check was this . . . there are many, many, many times when I have walked through town, any large city and I haven’t stopped. I have ignored. I have looked away. I have crossed over. I have gone to find another cashpoint. Because I didn’t know what to do, how to interact, how to care. Because I felt overwhelmed with sadness that we leave people to live like this. Because I was in a hurry. Because I was on the phone. Because I had enough money to pay for the car park and no more. Because because because I can make up excuses all day to avoid someone who is sleeping rough.

Not any more. I can’t forget Woody, in the way I forgot the woman I interviewed 25 years ago. Today I walked through town again and I came prepared, with money, I bought drinks and food for people, I stopped and chatted, I made the time. I planned to walk home and that my route would take me down Deansgate, where every hundred yards or so there is someone sitting in a doorway, begging, trying to sleep, just doing what they can to survive. I don’t judge what they spend the money I give them on. I kind of get why you would want to dull the pain with drugs or drink living like that. Who am I to judge that?

I do judge my own intention and behaviour though and I can make a small, small difference to someone by seeing them, acknowledging them, even just with a smile and a hello. It’s fundamental human stuff, to want to be seen, to be noticed. We don’t do well when we feel that we don’t exist or matter to anyone. We can cease to matter to ourselves and that is a hard place to come back from, especially when all the evidence around us would seem to suggest that this is true.

So it matters to me to show that people matter to me. I’m thankful I can, I’m thankful I can choose, I’m thankful I have a home, a job, an income, a safe place to sleep, I’m never cold or hungry or at risk sleeping rough. I’m thankful for the reality check on my own behaviour and I’m thankful I can choose to address that.

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