I’m a wonderer. I see people on the tube or on a plane, and I wonder about them, where they’re going, why they’re going there, what their story is. I was in a waiting room at Euston station a few weeks ago, heading to Birmingham for work, and I was doing just that. Most people were reading or listening to music, doing what they could to avoid eye contact with anyone else.
One man was on his phone, frantically explaining that his social worker had only given him the receipt to his train ticket, rather than the piece he needed to travel, and he’d got as far as London but couldn’t get any further. He had a flat secured but if he didn’t get there by 8pm it would be gone. He had no money, his social worker wasn’t picking up her phone, and the police couldn’t do anything for him. It broke my heart.
I was lucky enough in my first job to get to set up a training group with a wonderful group of people, some my age, some parents, some grandparents, who all just happened to have been homeless once. The year I spent working with them without a doubt changed my life. That year I learnt that charity isn’t about saving someone, but about working with someone to figure out what’s right for them. I learnt that no one chooses to be homeless, and that the social housing system that’s meant to be a safety net has a long way to go. Most of all, I learnt that you won’t always land on your feet with a second chance, but you just might if you get a third, a fourth, or even a fifth.
I’d like to say that I would have asked the man in Euston that evening if he needed some help before that job snuck up on me and surprised me, but the truth is I know I wouldn’t have. I would have turned a blind eye, plugged in my headphones, pretended I didn’t hear him.
That night though, when he got up and left, I asked my colleague to watch my suitcase, and I ran after him. I apologised for intruding and asked if he needed some help. He immediately showed me his receipt, so focused on showing me his proof, not wanting me to think he was lying. Then he told me he needed to get to Esher, and so we went to the ticket machine together and got him a ticket, for six pounds. Six pounds to get to his second or third or fourth chance. He thanked me, kissed me on the cheek, and went on his way.
Today I’ve been wondering about him, wondering if he got there, how he’s doing, wondering if he’s on his feet. Hoping, and wondering.