A couple of years ago we were sitting on the terrace chatting to some friends. They come to Spain every year for about five weeks. We met when they rented a flat up the road, although normally they rent a flat in our nearest town.
They are a similar age to us, they don’t eat meat – she’s vegetarian, he eats fish – they don’t smoke, they don’t have any children. They are quite into animal rights to the extent that they have been on marches – eg opposing the transport of calves for veal.
It was enough to start up a conversation the first time we met and we have kept in touch for the last four or five years. She’s an agricultural worker and he used to be in construction, but doesn’t work now because of health problems. They aren’t rich, they aren’t poor. A bit like us.
One day, I don’t know how it came up, we were talking about the homeless people who sit on the streets in town waiting for people to give them money. Our friends said they never gave them any money and asked if we ever did. We said yes.
There was a pause in the conversation, and the friends then quickly said how much they admired us – but then asked, obviously totally perplexed – why?
Well, we certainly don’t do it to gain anyone’s admiration, nor do we do it for religious reasons (we are not religious – ironically our friends are). I guess the simple answer is that we wouldn’t like to be in their position – there but for the grace of god and all that – and we can afford to give a euro now and again to help someone eke out a daily existence. Maybe it goes on alcohol, maybe it goes on cigarettes. Maybe it goes on drugs. My choice to give, their choice to spend it on what they want. My very generous donation of a euro isn’t given with the condition that it must only be spent on things I consider appropriate. If I really wanted to impose my view on them I could buy some bread, or some fruit/vegetables and give that to them instead. I happen to think a euro is more use.
Afterwards though we thought about it. We had started giving to quite a few homeless people. We decided to cut back and stick to the ones with dogs – or the ones who were around all year and didn’t just blow in for the summer holidays.
Many years ago – when we were hard-nosed and hungry – we never gave to anyone. When I worked in London I used to travel home through Euston Station. (No, this is not a Monopoly game). If I wasn’t dodging the guy yelling out “Socialist Worker” as he tried to sell the magazine to well-off commuters, I was dodging all the tramps. (They were called tramps at the time).
Why didn’t they get washed and get a job? I thought to myself. Idle layabouts poncing off hard-working righteous members of society ie me. They probably have loads of money anyway, I continued to myself. Nope. They are not getting one penny out of me. I am not a soft touch. You can tell it was Thatcher’s Britain. And I was a good Thatcher’s eighties babe.
A few years later I was back in journalism and one of my left-wing feminist colleagues said loftily that she never gave to Big Issue sellers (to my surprise). “It’s just an excuse for the miserable government not to put the correct structures in place,” she declared. She was hardly Ms Generosity either. I seem to remember she was a mature student at the time reading sociology at Hull and worked on the paper in her holidays. She married a pretty well-off merchant banker and promptly became Mrs Merchant Banker. Clearly a woman of principle. (ie self first).
So we ignored Ms Radical Student aka Mrs Merchant Banker and gave to some of the Big Issue sellers. But then stopped – for lots of reasons. I thought it was pretty insulting for people who genuinely needed money and work, it certainly wasn’t a real job, and there was also a lot of negative publicity about Big Issue generally at the time. I got bored with reading it as well.
Since I chucked my job, I have had lots of time to think. Probably too much, but at least I’m not thinking about work. I live in a beautiful part of the world. I own my house. I have enough money to buy food and pay the bills. I am warm, even on cold days. I’m a big believer in Maslow’s triangle – and I have all my physiological needs – food, warmth, and shelter. Homeless people have none of these.
We have seen some of the local homeless men walking into town, wearing the same dirty clothes, their shoes or boots falling apart, sometimes with a shopping trolley containing a few plastic bags of tat – all they possess in the world. Partner was speaking to one of them a while ago. There are a few safe places where they go to sleep. They try and team up because it is safer that way, and one might be awake while the other sleeps. It’s one of the reasons some of them have dogs.
Why are people so sick that they want to rob or assault homeless people? Do they harm anyone? No. They don’t even beg. They don’t come round sticking white heather in your hand and cursing you with bad luck if you don’t buy it. Nor do they drag a brood of tiny kiddies around with them, and stick their hand under your nose saying “My children are starving, please feed them.” Or as it is here: “Por los niños, por favor” in a whiney voice.
One of the “regulars” is Dutch. He had a good job in Amsterdam but left because of the ease of obtaining drugs. But the drugs always find you. They are easy to get hold of here too. He’s pretty honest though. One day Partner was reaching in his pocket to get a euro and the guy said: “No, it’s all right. I’ve made enough today. Keep it. But thanks.”
It’s often the men who give to them. Sometimes it is the northern Europeans – Germans, Dutch, British – sometimes it is the northern Spaniards. These homeless men are people, they have a life, they merit respect like anyone else. Who knows what has happened to them? None of us are perfect and it isn’t up to me to judge them. I wouldn’t like to be in their soulless shoes.
But when Partner came home and told me about the German man who had been found dead inside a rubbish bin, I was gutted. Partner didn’t know the detail. Maybe he had dived in looking for food and couldn’t get out. Maybe he was drunk or stoned. He died where many people consider he belonged. With the rubbish. No-one to care for him, to look after him, to help him, or even to miss him.
I think we live in a shit society when something like that happens. I think we live in a shit society for lots of reasons, but this is just one example. Nothing in place to help him. No shelter, no food, no money, no warmth. And people walking past him every day, ignoring him. Just part of life’s detritus. I guess the good news for the selfish bastards that think like that is they won’t have to walk past him any more. One less dirty scruffy homeless person on our pristine streets.