April 25, 2008

On Being Homeless for 35 Minutes in Central London

Homeless Guy in London

A couple of years ago, I was in London on a three-day layover after flying in from Africa. I had been in Sierra Leone for several months and was looking forward to walking the streets, hanging out in coffee shops, and seeing friends before heading on.

On my first night in the city, I had nothing important to do, so I took the underground down to Trafalgar Square. I bought a takeaway curry meal for dinner and ate about half of it on a park bench. Then I went walking down Oxford Street for about 15 blocks in search of the nearest Borders bookstore where I hoped to spend the rest of the evening reading books and drinking coffee. I kept the rest of my dinner box with me, because I thought I might run into a homeless person who would appreciate some food. After walking 10 blocks, I hadn’t met anyone and began to feel silly about carrying around half a box of vegetable curry, so I finally threw it away.

Sure enough, two blocks later, I came by a panhandler who was sitting beside an ATM (a convenient location, I thought) asking people for spare change as they walked by. I felt bad about throwing away the rest of my dinner, so I decided to see if I could do something else to help.

I asked his permission to sit down and chat. “John” welcomed me and told me his story. Years ago, he had been a successful tradesman but had fallen on hard times, went through a divorce, and so on. If you talk with homeless people in most major cities throughout the world, you’ll often hear similar stories. Sometimes they’re true and often they’re not, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter that much. For whatever reason, most people hanging out on the streets all day really don’t have a regular place to live.

How To Give $17 and Lose $17 More

I talked with John for ten minutes, and his story was growing crazier by the minute. The climax came when he told me that six months ago, he was at this same ATM station when a woman was being robbed. John tried to defend her, but was hurt in the process. The police came and arrested him because the mystery attacker had fled the scene.

At this point I interrupted him. “Look,” I said. “I’ll give you some money for dinner, but you don’t have to lie to me. Do you really expect me to believe you?”

John kept insisting that the story was true, and I may have even started to believe him. “What has he got to lose?” I thought. Perhaps I was feeling especially generous after coming out of Africa for the first time in months, but I gave him £10, which was about $17 at the time. John was very thankful.

I let my guard down a few minutes later when John’s face brightened and he said, “Hey, I get a lot of coins from people and they’re heavy to carry around all the time. Would you mind exchanging these coins for a ten-pound note?”

I looked at a paper cup in his hand, which was indeed filled with heavy English coins. I gave him the note. John put it in his pocket and stood up. “I’m just going to the washroom down the street,” he told me. “Can you watch my stuff for me?”

He took his backpack with him but left his coat, a box of crackers, and another bag with me. As he walked off I realized that he had taken the cup of coins with him too. I was alarmed for a moment, but then I remembered the stuff that he had left in my care.

“That’s a clever trick,” I thought. “I bet he’s thinking that I’ll forget to ask him for the coins when he comes back. He is coming back, right?” I looked at his things beside me and felt relieved again. What kind of guy would leave his stuff behind and never return?

Well, I waited for John for ten minutes. Then I waited another five minutes. The whole time, people kept walking by, trying not to make eye contact with me as I sat beside the ATM with a homeless guy’s stuff. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. One guy actually said, “Good evening” to me, and I rushed to explain myself.

“Oh, hi. I’m not really sitting here. I mean, I’m just waiting for my friend John. You know John? He, uh, works here sometimes.” The man walked on and I grew even more anxious. Around that time, I decided to go through John’s things to see what I was faithfully looking after.

Upon Realizing I Would Never See My $17 Again

To my surprise, I found that the bag he left behind was full of trash. The cracker box was empty. The coat, which I had earlier assumed would never be discarded, was old, tattered, and dirty. That morning I had browsed through a charity shop where I saw dozens of old coats for five pounds or less.

And I realized what I should have known from the beginning—John was gone, and he had taken almost $17 from me, in addition to the $17 that I willingly gave him, and he wasn’t planning on coming back.

I felt incredibly angry and embarrassed. Wasn’t I a Very Experienced Traveler? Don’t I know how to talk to homeless people in a place like London? How can I go traveling all over Africa, deflecting bribe requests from corrupt officials and staying out of trouble, only to end up losing $17 the first day I get back to Europe?

I was determined to not let John get the better of me. After all, I reasoned, he has to come back sometime. He’s probably going to wait half an hour and then return, thinking that I’ve given up. I’ll show him, I thought.

“Nice try, John,” I imagined myself saying. “You put on a good effort, but I want my ten pounds back right now.”

I sat there for another twenty minutes, looking at the ground and getting more and more angry. I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself—John wasn’t coming back. Whether I admitted it or not, though, it was true.

Anger and Resentment

I finally left the ATM in disgust. I couldn’t figure out who I was the most upset at—John or myself. There must be some good reason for this, I kept thinking. Maybe I’ll run into John at the Borders tonight and I can confront him then.

“Who bought you that hot chocolate? Who paid the extra thirty pence for the whipped cream on top?”

After walking around the London streets for another half-hour, I made it to the Borders I had set out to find a long time ago. John wasn’t at the café inside. I didn’t see him later that night as I rode the underground back to my guesthouse, and I didn’t see him two mornings later as I left London for another city.

Life requires you to take risks. When you take risks, sometimes you lose. Is it worth it to you?

Was it worth it to me that night?

Resolution

I thought about calling this essay, “How To Lose $34 in London,” but I realized that losing the $34 was easy. The hard part was learning to let go of the money long after it had left my pocket.

Whether by his own fault or through the fault of others, John was homeless. While I went around sleeping in hotel rooms or on the couches of friends, John went from shelter to shelter. Given the choice, would I trade places with John for even one day? The idea is laughable—I could hardly manage to sit on the sidewalk by the London ATM for 30 minutes, knowing that the people passing by thought I was homeless. Yet, some part of me that night was resentful of John and wished that I could be in his place with the $34.

***

I have a friend, Marie, who works with the homeless in Seattle. One night she came over to talk to us about her recommendations for how we should respond to the many transient people in our city. One thing that Marie said made a big impression on me.

“You can give money if you want,” she told us. “But once you give it, let it go. Don’t expect a miracle, because many people on the streets are not ready to change their situations. But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get dinner or a place to stay.”

I liked that approach. Do what you can do to help, and then let it go. Live your life, help others, and don’t stress out when something doesn’t work the way you expected it would. You can still go to Borders and read books at the café.

John, if you’re out there, I can’t really say “thanks” for taking my money. I’m still a little mad about it. But I appreciate the lessons I learned through my mistake and your chicanery. I’ve probably been thinking about this long after you’ve forgotten it, so it’s time for me to let it go too.

I hope you got another coat from the charity shop.

I hope you won’t be falsely arrested for fending off robbers at the ATM again.

I hope you enjoyed the hot chocolate that I imagined my money being spent on.

Take care, John, and everyone else out there in London and beyond.

###

Comment on this article

31 Responses to “On Being Homeless for 35 Minutes in Central London”

  1. Great Story. Helpful perspective: “Freely you’ve received, freely give.” I’ve been there before and no doubt will be again. Thanks for your transparent and memorable thoughts, Chris.

  2. Wonderful post, Chris.

  3. This is such a well reasoned response to the situation. Moving to Chicago from Kentucky, I intitially felt the frustration of wanting to give money but not having enough to support myself and give to everyone who asked me. I had a similiar experience that made me “toughen up” a bit and to become more wise about what I can actually do and what is beyond the scope of a single individual. The idea of “letting go” of the money once it leaves your pocket is an important one to highlight, and really the heart of “charity.”

  4. May 9, 2008

    Andrew

    I’m British and I can’t help but feel a bit ashamed that this happened to you in London. You were trying to help the guy and then he pulls a trick like that :(

    I think you dealt with it in a very mature way though.

    I hope this didn’t leave you with a bad impression of London.

    p.s. I love your blog

  5. @Andrew- Don’t feel bad; it could have happened anywhere. I think we sometimes respond to situations differently when it is an unfamiliar setting, because I don’t usually give away my money to homeless guys in the U.S.

    I do not have a bad impression of London or the U.K. at all. :)

  6. Once, a panhandler offered to sing me a song for $5. Though a little uncomfortable, i gave it to him. In 2 seconds he transformed from panhandler to busker. So there I was, in the middle of the sidewalk, people passing (and looking horrified) as he screamed punk-ish lyrics about a foot from my face. Loved every second.

  7. Thanks to all for the feedback – @Susan, @Guiness416, @John, and @Rick.

    Rick, that is a great story! There are a couple singing panhandler guys in Seattle’s University District, but nothing quite like that.

  8. June 17, 2008

    C.J. Boehle

    I’m still working on letting go of feelings of betrayal over episodes that elicit those feelings, so thanks for the great reminder. Also, I have worked for many years with street people and sometimes I find they have a curious (to me) philosophy of how things are.

    Sometimes they think of such episodes as you have described as a game between you and them. Sometimes they believe they are doing you a favour by teaching you not to be so naive. They very seldom realize they have betrayed trust so they seldom have pangs of conscience. They mostly believe they are so insignificant or what they have taken from you is so insignificant that it won’t hurt you.

    He probably would expect you to laugh at his cleverness and be full of admiration. Remember Aesop’s fable about the Fox and the scorpion? It was his nature to be the trickster. He wasn’t just exploiting your kindness but just wrapped up in his role of clever street con man. Does this make it easier in processing any residual feelings? I hope so.

  9. Chris:

    I found this to be a rather interesting story that took me back to the time when a woman, in the pouring rain, came up to my car when I was pulling out of a parking spot, crying about something. She asked for money. I reached for my wallet and saw I had some in there but I lied and said I didn’t have any. Then drove away.

    I later wrote an article about it – i had felt badly for lying. All sorts of thoughts went through my mind one of which was something along the lines of “She’s faking it and trying to take advantage of me at an inopportune time.” The end of that article emphasized that what you give is between you and God. If you give, be prepared not to see it again. If you don’t give, you’ll have another opportunity to do so.

    Very interesting. You have a nice writing style. You write well. I’m amazed you’re traveling all over the world, writing in the process and uploading it from where ever you happen to be.

  10. I was homeless for 18 months. Nope. No drugs, no alcohol, no spousal abuse – just grief after my father died. I moved into my van, alternated between depression and temp work, survived a winter, summer and fall in Colorado, then another winter in the south before finally getting it together. Email me and I’ll send you the link to some video of it. But along the way 98% of those I met treated me like a criminal. One gave me a laptop computer and a cell-phone and that was all it took to help me climb out of the hole I was in. Not many people are so generous, but to those who gave me money, bought me meals, let me shower or sleep in their homes – I’m grateful. Don’t beat yourself up for believing in the basic goodness of people. There are are just as many crooks in business suits and ties as in rags.

  11. Chris, I believe that people come into our lives for the lessons that they have for us. Why stay angry with the guy? It isn’t hurting him. I would look at why you are still angry after all of this time. Maybe that is where your lesson is?

  12. @Just Me,

    Thank you for the amazing story. That is truly incredible. Wow.

    @Patricia,

    I’m not angry with him at all. The essay was mostly about the process of working through my initial feelings of anger and disappointment (in myself) to the point of acceptance. It took longer than I would have liked — a day or two instead of right away — but I certainly didn’t stay upset longer than that.

  13. I enjoyed reading this. Interesting perspective. We all get played sometimes but who knows what’s good or bad? You thought it was bad at the time but it turned out good. Life’s like that.

  14. Chris,

    Have been reading through your blog for the past couple of hours, and enjoying every minute of it. This post reminded me of a story:

    A guru and his disciple, who belonged to a very strict order that considered even looking at a woman a sin, were walking along a road to a distant village. On the way there was a river, swollen with monsoon rains. A woman stood hesitating at the riverbank, nervous about crossing.

    As they came up to the river and saw the woman, the disciple gave the guru a sidelong glance, wondering what he would do. The guru, who was tall and strong, simply went up to the woman and with her permission, picked her up, waded across and set her down on the other side, then carried on walking down the road.

    The disciple followed, seething in silent resentment. “What a hypocrite! He asks us not to glance at women, or even think about them, but here he not only talks to one but actually touches her! How can I respect or follow him now?” Tortured by such thoughts all afternoon, he could not contain himself and angrily asked for an explanation over the evening meal.

    The guru looked at him with a commiserating smile. “My son, I just carried the woman over the river. But you have been carrying her the whole day. Now just put her down and let go.”

  15. @Jad,

    Thanks for posting… that is one of my favorite Zen stories. There is another one about a monk and a baby that is also good:

    http://www.experts.com/showArticle.asp?id=174

    That link has some others as well.

  16. Being cheated is sometimes a challenge to deal with. I can still recall my anger at Italian fruit seller in Venice who recognized me as a traveling student and substituted two rotten peaches for a pair I had selected and handed him with money. Some instinct made me open the bag before I left. When I realized what he’d done I exchanged his rotten peaches for good ones and attempted to leave, whereupon he burst into a tyrannical, foaming rage and had to be restrained from violence. I think I escaped without peaches or a refund but to cheat AND play the victim … that takes some, eh, peaches.

    Later, traveling in the muslim world, I learned the meaning of hospitality and generosity and the beautiful idea that all one will have in the next world is what one has given away in this one. Even if it’s not true it’s salutary reminder of how ungenerous we often are. My first practical lesson was the day I found a cheque of mine had been altered. The forgery was blatant, and so I was affronted and indignant. I lost some money; the details aren’t worth rehearsing. What I realized fairly quickly was that it wasn’t going to make the slightest difference to my life.

    Yet, I had never for a second contemplating giving that much money away voluntarily.

    We can never know when a $10 bill we won’t miss will really matter or a small act of kindness will make an indelible impression and be paid forward many times.

    A small story of my own

    http://wombatdiet.net/2007/11/10/the-kindness-of-strangers/

  17. I don’t give money to panhandlers. I just don’t. You never know if they’ll use it to buy booze, drugs or whatever. Should it matter to me what they use it for? Probably not…but I’m not going to be part and parcel to another human being’s possible self-destruction. In this day and age, you don’t HAVE to be on the streets if you don’t want to be. Yes…people fall upon hard times (myself included), but winners find ways to deal with it, and get back on their feet.

  18. November 7, 2008

    Cameron C.

    Great Post Chris, thanks again for sharing your honest stories!

    Here in SLC, Utah – If I am strolling around uptown (and not in a big hurry) I will usually go to a nearby restaurant and purchase a few small pies and some fries (I used to purchase burgers, but I have since turned vegetarian) and usually give them to anyone thats out and about asking for money.

    Its certainly not a nutritious meal, but the people are always grateful when I tell them I brought them some dinner. Their smiles are always worth the few dollars I spent to bring it their way.

    Maybe next time you can offer to purchase them a cup of hot chocolate or a biscuit!

  19. Hello Chris,

    I heard about your blog from our french Montreal newspaper, La Presse. I only had time to read this post so far but I’d like to say that I love your blog already! I will make sure to come back regularly because I am an avid traveller too and want to learn and read about all your adventures!

    ‘Read’ you soon… Have a nice day. :-)

  20. nice story to read on New Year’s Eve. thanks for sharing. you write and tell stories beautifully too! thanks. (as i am writing this, your twitter says you’re in BKK – good luck and safe trips. cheers!)

  21. I give money unconditionally. I do not give often (money is scarce at the moment), but when I give, I often give 5-10$. I know that some of this money may go to drugs, but if I don’t give will people stop using drugs ? No, I don’t think so, an alcoholic without money is still an alcoholic. Until he/she decides that being one is not a solution, money or lack of money doesn’t change anything. So I just give the money and hope to make one day a little brighter. Maybe a day without panic, which is what I mostly see in the eyes of people, I suspect need money for drugs. Panic is bad for thinking, panic is bad for change, less panic may make a window for change. Maybe not, but this isn’t a reason not to give something. Drug addicts need to eat too. And lets face it, I, as almost everybody else, am probably not even able to tell, if people use drugs or not by just looking at them.

  22. After being homeless myself for about 3 months, I can appreciate how upsetting it was for you is to be hustled. It was wonderful for you to help someone. I wouldn’t be with a roof over my head if it hadn’t been for people like you and government assistance. We all need to believe in people too, and take a chance sometime.

    None of us like to be tricked. Personally I hate the games people play. So many know how to turn our niceness into a weakness, although I will still try to trust. Your friend is right to tell you, if you give money, never expect it back. Somehow, you will get it back. You just need to realize that when something good happens to you in life, it is that payback for your generosity.

    We are all blessed, but few know real gratitude for the simple things in life. We all learn from others. Perhaps you have lost trust, but know in your heart that the person who scammed you probably needed it more than you did.

    I hope that this one incident won’t turn you against homelessness. Kindness and generosity I found in Church basements at night where shelter was available along with a hot meal meant more than you know. Perhaps I can suggest you do what they did in the Churches——give someone a gift card to McDonalds or somewhere. That way an amount is predetermined by you…..or even a bus or train voucher means so much when you are really desperate.

    Your compassionate side is a beautiful thing…..God Bless you.

  23. I had a similar thing happen to me, you dealt with it very well. Keep up the good blog work :)

  24. “You never know if they’ll use it to buy booze, drugs or whatever.” It is said by many who do not give to people on the street.

    You can decide not to give anything and no one will think less of you for not doing it. The problem comes when you make judgments about how people will spend that money if you do decide to give it.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t pay people who work in all forms of paid employment since employees and management staff might use it to buy booze, drugs or whatever. The panhandler, squeegee kid or beggar on the street works hard for the money they are given too. Begging is hard work and is done in all kinds of weather.

    So, once you have given someone money, you have no right to judge them on their purchases.

  25. February 17, 2009

    rare earth

    I once went through a similar situation. I am currently in college. receiving financial aid and working part time. One day after dropping off my girlfriend at her house i had to withdraw money. I went to ATM (its roughly 11 30pm about now) and out of the corner of my eye i see a dark figure outside, I could only think that I was to be assaulted as i opened the doors. I walked out and the figure apporached me and started telling about his situation and how he wanted three dollars. All i had was a twenty in my wallet. his story was believable but his crying made me doubt the whole thing. I said, “hey man, i dont know if what you are saying is true but take this” I gave him my twenty and he said, ” This is a blessing” he raaaaan off. im not wealthy, far from it, but a week before i gave 5 dollars to another bum and we talked and he thanked me and my parents for having raised me so well. In comparison to that, i felt some regret, but I hoped he got the most out of my spontaneous charity.

  26. Not all people who panhandle are homeless. Many are scam artists, sorry but it is true. In Memphis, there are the same panhandlers in the same locations every day, especially around the tourist areas. If you truly want to help the homeless, don’t give on the street, give to an established charity.

  27. I agree with Kaye. In the US, you can’t be sure that the person is even genuinely homeless. I’ve donated cash, booze, food, and cigarettes before, all to different responses. I’ve also been homeless before for months at the age of 19. It’s a scary place, and a lot of times, desperate, but I managed to escape the common traps thanks to friends. I just generally never carry cash, because most places don’t demand paper $ anymore… Strip club? Farmer’s Market? Laundromat? OK- get cash for that… Count yourself lucky you only lost $30. That’s a used video game or a decent bottle of vodka… i.e.. not much at all.

  28. June 7, 2009

    She Menick

    I have found myself on both sides. I had it and gave not conserned about what the money was used for. it was need vs. want. it made me feel a little better about myself. then I became homeless. but I kept my needs small. did not smoke, drink, or use drugs. nor did I steal or beg or prostitute myself. I bathed and groomed and kept up my appearences like I always did. I lived in shelters. accepted food where food was offered. and made friends with all kinds of interesting people. I found out that being homeless wasn’t as hard as being abused. I wish I could write about some of the things I’ve been through. but I can’t expect it to matter to anyone except me.

  29. “I hope you enjoyed the hot chocolate that I imagined my money being spent on.”

    Unlikely, he was probably satisfied with skag.

  30. Interesting story, nicely written. John’s situation is sad but he basically robbed you, and took advantage of your interest. He probably thought you were some dumb Yank kid to rip off. These people tell you what you want to hear. I’ve met a few. I don’t bother with them now. There’s very little in it. And who wants to hear about their shitty lives anyway? Got my own shitty life to deal with.

  31. you know what’s ironic … if you’d given the 10 pounds, and then he’d asked you for another 10, it would have been a generous act and you would have felt warm and fuzzy. the problem was that you freely gave 10 pounds and he stole the other 10 from you.

    that’s what makes one feel cheated – not that we are asked for the resources we have, but that people feel the need to rip us off for stuff we might have given freely had we been asked.

    also, @she menick, many many people would be interested in your story. start a blog, write a series in a magazine, write a book. millions of people will want to hear your story. it sounds really, really inspiring.