Friday, 12 February 2010

London 2010?

I am not sure what point I'm making here but bear with me.

Yesterday, on a tube train in the bowels of London, I was sitting in a crowded carriage, travelling from Kentish Town to Bank. At Camden Town at young man with gingery hair and beard, supported by a crutch got on. I vaguely noticed him as he steadied himself as the train pulled off.

"I know you're thinking, it's another homeless person," said the man. He was no more than 30, looked not scruffy but not smart in a mock leather jacket. His voice was clear, bearing no discernible accent and he sounded intelligent. "But I am just collecting to get enough money to get some food and a place to sleep tonight. I know it's not you're problem and I am not here to force you or make you feel guilty but if you could spare some money, I would appreciate it."

As he spoke, he made no eye contact and kept looking at the carriage floor. In his free hand he held is woolly beanie hat and he limped through the carriage holding it ahead of him. The lady next to me and I dipped into our purse and pocket respectively. I felt a coin in my pocket - it was bigger than most and I knew it was a £2 coin. I hesitated a second as I had a few smaller coins but as the man passed me, he must have known that I was reaching into my pocket yet he did not offer the hat to me. I pulled my hand free and I dropped my £2 coin into his hat and he said, "God bless you" to the lady and I.

He made his way to the next part of the carriage and used his clearly well rehearsed patter on the people in there.

Several things crossed my mind as I looked back at my crossword. I was struck by the man's humility and humbleness - and the fact he was not transferring his problem onto us or blaming us. He just needed some money. Another thing struck me - the act of giving him anything made me feel no better or worse - I neither made eye contact with him nor attempted to engage him in conversation; it was a perfunctory donation on my part and, financially, I was only marginally worse off. I don't know why I chose a £2 coin and I had no idea if it was the going rate or whether I was being wildly generous.

I had no idea what the cost of maintaining myself in food and shelter for the night if I was in the same position. I was intrigued that such a unscruffy looking man with an intelligent voice and manner could be a homeless person - he did not look drunk or on drugs, he was not dirty or smelly; he clearly had some pride in his looks.

His patter was well honed and his delivery was good - he made no attempt to engage with people or to make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. His manner was non-pushy and there was no implied threat; it was simple and easy to understand. There was no attempt to make you feel sorry for him or to get angry with the intrusion into your journey. The man had a gift to to get what he needed without need to resort to emotional blackmail. It was actually quite skilled.

With all that going in the man's favour, I wondered how could such a person be homeless and down on his luck. He had more things going for him than against him. Yet he was homeless and £2 or any coin meant something to him.

Last night, I looked up that there are estimated some 1 million, of which 400,000 are known as 'hidden', homeless people in Britain and up to 2008 this number had trended downward. London is one of six regions in Britain which statistically has the highest concentration of homeless people - around 0.6% of the population of people in London are homeless. These figures go up to 2008 and obviously do not take account of the recent recession.

I have no idea how much is the bare minimum in terms of cash required to get food and a place to sleep in London if you are homeless.

As I travelled home last night, I realised that this young man, without meeting my eye or talking to me personally had said something to me. I looked back over the various themes to my blog and realised that much of my own issues are with the injustice of greedy bankers getting a 'get out of jail free card' and then moaning about how few £millions they are allowed to earn this year or at 50% taxation and that Britain is pricing itself out of the financial market. That or trough-snouting politicians on the make, justifying themselves as if they needed it. Or lying politicians sending kids to die or get blown to pieces. I am angry about something.

I am not sure of my figures but I would suggest that 0.6% of people in London may be far more than the number of bankers who earn over £1m a year in bonuses. Perhaps it would be pertinent for the two populations to swap for a night or two just so that we can all get a sense of perspective.

Modern Britain is full of such peculiarities - in a population of 64m in Britain, over 1m are still classified as homeless. I would suggest just than a few thousand people in Britain are rich bankers earning over £1m for trading on the back of their company's big name. They are the people who leaned out of their windows at the time of the G8 talks waving £10 notes at protesters after losing £billions.

It would be good for such apparently educated and intelligent people to get some real education and humility.

Again, I am not sure of my point here but I guess I felt more humble about some homeless guy asking me for £2 than some rich kid robbing me of thousands so that he or she can continue to earn £millions and for them to act as if I owe them.

I shall remember that the next time I see bankers trying to justify themselves on TV or a politician feeling stressed by questions of their honesty or greed. What I shall forever feel guilty about is that I hesitated giving the man just £2, thinking it too much while I had no choice in giving thousands to some ungrateful little swines who had lost £billions and did not even have the humility to ask us to bail them out or thanks us.

They just expected it and we paid. And we keep paying. Perhaps we all need some education.

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