Home > politics > Encounter with a homeless person / compassion of strangers

Encounter with a homeless person / compassion of strangers

She walked across St Enoch Square, head down, hurrying for the last subway, clutching a takeaway box containing half a pizza from that evening’s dinner, planned for tomorrow’s lunch. Huddled in a doorway, a person seemed settled for the night, in a bundle of coats and ramshackle belongings. She looked down at the pizza box, and up again at the homeless person across the square, and changed tack to pass by the poor soul without 4 walls for the night.

“Would you like this pizza? Its cold and there’s only half left but …”

A sparsely toothed grin and bright eyes looked up from the makeshift bed.

“Thank you dear!” The homeless woman sounded unbelievably delighted as she took hold of what seemed like such a poor gift to the girl.

“Its not much, I mean I was just going to have it for my lunch tomorrow – there’s nothing wrong with it…” again she trailed off, not sure how to communicate that there was nothing really wrong with the pizza, because she was going to have it, but that it wasn’t that great either.

“Oh you keep it then” – again the easy smile and the woman attempted to return the box.

“No no no! Please, you have it, its nothing, I have other food…” how to say that your need is greater without sounding patronising and reeking of charity? How to say that it is the least she can do, when she has a flat and money for food and that it is a disgusting indictment of our society and what we all will allow to happen, that not everybody has those things? How to communicate that the treatment of other human beings and the climate by a government that we collectively allow to govern this land, as evidenced by the woman’s living conditions and pleasure at half a cold pizza, stirs up despair, anger, sorrow, grief and hopelessness.

“Thank you sweetheart” and she held out a grimy, weather worn hand, which the girl gladly held, before rushing off for the subway.

And the girl felt warmed. The woman’s delight at the pizza reminded her of when she had lived out of bins, and maintained her mental health in part by emotionally reacting to the treasures within; still frozen half eaten ice cream on a hot day in the park, warm chips, fancy store prepared fruit mostly untouched in its fancy box. How easily she had been pleased back then, compared to tonight’s petty moaning when the soup wasn’t perfect in the restaurant.

Also she felt like she’d been able to do something, tiny though it was, to both alleviate some hunger, and show solidarity with that homeless woman. And that salved her anguish a little.

But that didn’t altogether explain how much better she felt now, compared to 5 minutes earlier, and she thought more about the encounter. The woman had treated her as a human being. She had not reacted with mistrust or attempted manipulation. She had been concerned that the girl not give up tomorrow’s meal, though overtly the girl had more resources than the homeless woman did. She had expressed gratitude, but not that of a beggar, but more like one friend to another, without belittling herself at all in doing so. She had been deeply human at the girl. She had been open, unguarded, easygoing and friendly. And oh god had the girl needed that. She hadn’t even realised until the hunger was fed that she was starving for easy human connection and interaction. Warmly, with affection the woman had stretched her hand up for the girl to take and that contact had felt so precious and genuine and nourishing. With tenderness and a friendly hand had the homeless woman responded to the half eaten cold pizza. And the girl was blessed by it and left the encounter enriched and grateful for the homeless woman’s compassion.


Well that was my evening. I wish I had better writing skill to have less hamfistedly conveyed the twist when I realised why I was feeling so much better after the encounter, and who was really the one who had given most during it. Even now, way after I’m home, I still feel very touched and humbled by her generous spirit. I wish I had had something adequate to reciprocate with, and hopefully she also felt a human connection.

Categories: politics
  1. August 5, 2015 at 4:03 am

    That’s a story worth telling, and I didn’t think your telling of it was at all hamfisted.

    You’ve reminded me of an encounter I had. I was walking up Bridge Street in Aberdeen. On the other side of the road I saw what I thought was a fight, but then I saw what it really was, two men kicking and punching a third man, on the ground, half wrapped in a sleeping bag. Fear washed through me as I knew I was going to intervene. I never felt like I had a choice, and I crossed the road and said something inane like, “oy, stop that!”

    I had to put myself between the attackers and their victim, before they’d stop. No-one hit me, maybe because I’m female, but they didn’t back off, either. They argued with me, that it was none of my business, that the aggressors were homeless too, and the man on the ground was the brother of one of them. What did they expect? That I’d say, “oh, sorry, carry on then”? They only stopped arguing and left when a fat man in a suit came down the road, and said something like “break it up, gents.” I remember feeling kind of insulted – why did they back off for him, but not for me? Maybe it was just the combination of two people telling them to get lost.

    I don’t remember checking on the man on the ground. I must have, but I don’t remember it. I suspect I didn’t linger, but I know that I didn’t stop thinking about him. I wanted to do something nice for him. I bought him a book. Look, I love books, I thought maybe he would like something to read. I put the receipt in the book, in case he would rather have the money. Then I put a banknote in the book too, so that choosing to keep the book wouldn’t leave him with zero money.

    When I walked back along the street, I was truly surprised to see him still there. He greeted me with genuine pleasure, and thanked me for stopping to protect him. I was truly disarmed by his demeanour. I had thought that he’d harbour some resentment, some kind of hurt pride, towards this posh-sounding young woman who put herself between him and a kicking. I think I would have felt embarrassed and resentful, in his position. I’d have smiled and said thank you, but I would’ve had complicated feelings.

    I saw nothing by open friendliness in him. I wanted more than anything else to give him a hug, but I didn’t feel able to. Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to hug a stranger. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt able to say no if I asked. So I shook his hand, left the carrier bag with the book, and walked away. I felt terribly sad, but then I was dealing with a heavy dose of depression at the time. This was in 2008, or thereabouts. I wonder where he is now.

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