Last Thursday I ran 20 miles.
Out of the house, down the road, and along the valley.
A dual carriageway, into town, and then the canal.
Not quite as pretty as the wooded valley, but not without charm (and, most importantly, flat).
After 14 miles, I was hot, tired, slightly bored, and about to turn round.
And then a saw a man lying on the ground.
He was on a track off to one side of the main towpath, with his head on a large bag. He looked asleep, but it was an odd place to sleep, and he had too many clothes on for the blazing hot day.
Thoughts flashed through my head, and I’m writing them down here becase I’m not sure I like all of them.
‘What if he’s dead, and someone’s laid him like that to make him look asleep?’
‘What if he’s pretending to be dead, and grabs me when I get closer?’
‘He’s probably homeless, and just having a snooze’
‘He’s probably drunk, leave him alone’
I confess I was torn between my own safety, and his. I was on my own, nobody knew where I was, and I hadn’t seen anyone else around on the towpath. It was likely he was homeless and asleep, rather than dead, and probably wouldn’t thank me for waking him up. There was a fleeting temptation to turn around, as planned, and run home.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t run on and leave him there.
And so I took a deep breath and approached, making a noise as I went. I said ‘hello’, and when I got closer I prodded him with my foot, then immediately felt that was actually quite rude. (I’ve since been told this is what police advise in such circumstances, as it avoids contact with any blood or bodily fluid).
Eventually he woke when I grabbed his coat and lifted his arm. He was confused, and didn’t know where he was. I asked what he needed.
‘I need a lot of things’, he said.
How do you decide when it’s right to call an ambulance?
If he wasn’t wearing three jumpers, if his lips weren’t chapped like he’d been outside for weeks, if he didn’t look homeless, I wouldn’t have hesitated, but I did, and I still feel bad.
The First Responder recognised him – they’d picked him up before. He’d been drinking, and I didn’t stay to wait for the ambulance. I didn’t want to know if they took him away.
Later, a friend pointed out that we walk past homeless people sleeping on city streets all the time and don’t call the emergency services. Why is that ok, and why did I feel compelled to call for help for this man?
Do other people make a difference? In the city, there are many others, and every single one of them has chosen to walk past. Out on the canal, there was only me.
I worry sometimes. When is it ok to interfere in someone else’s life?
When is it ok not to?
When I was a teenager I used to carry a pocket full of change to give to people who asked or it as I walked around Liverpool. I couldn’t bear the thought of someone so desperate. People would say ‘they’ll just spend it on drink’, and now I’ve seen addiction at close quarters and I still can’t bear the thought of someone being in such need, for whatever reason.
I know homelessness does not necessarily go hand in hand with addiction. I’ve recently been told, for example, that a large proportion of homeless people have acquired a brain injury before becoming homeless. I know people lying in the street are not always homeless, that homeless people do not always have mental health problems, that people with mental health problems do not always have addictions. But these things all swim around together in my mind and I sometimes struggle to sort through them.
Someone once said to me that they would never be homeless, because their friends would always take them in. To them, being homeless meant having done something so bad that none of your friends would help. Well, let’s hope they never have to find out if that’s true.
Just think for a minute what it means to be homeless. Home-less. To sleep outside, in a doorway, in the rain. Or in a hostel, with other people, not knowing if you’ll afford another night. Or to be on someone’s sofa for weeks on end – because homeless means ‘without a home’, which is not the same as ‘sleeping rough’ – feeling in the way, with no space of your own.
Sometimes I despair, because I don’t know what’s the best thing to do. When someone asks me for spare change now, I’m just as likely to put my head down and walk on as I am to give them money. My longing to help fights with my fear of making things worse in the long run. And yes, sometimes, although I’m ashamed to say it, my compassion mixes with slight annoyance at having someone else’s problem intrude into my day.
I’m a practical lass, and I know I can’t go round picking up rough sleepers and depositing them – where? I can’t give everyone money. I can’t make people stop drinking, or solve their family problems, or find them a job.
But what should I do? I donate to a local homeless charity occasionally and buy the Big Issue, and those are good things. But they don’t help stop my guilt when I walk past someone lying in the street and the only reason I don’t stop is because they look homeless.
I should probably stop wringing my hands and just do the small things I can, and part of me wants to apologise for an unusually navel-gazing post on a mostly cheerful blog. But I think sometimes it’s good to examine our thoughts in situations like this. It hurts to be confronted with other people’s suffering, but I don’t think we should always avoid thinking about it. Sometimes we should try to feel someone else’s pain, and let it make us more compassionate.
I’m off to curl up on the sofa and count my blessings. I hope you’re in a position to do the same.