Why are we surprised at homeless heroes?
Amid the chaos in Manchester on Monday, two homeless men ran into the arena and helped rescue people, give first aid to them and in one case, hold a dying person. Since then, one of the men at least has been found, given accommodation for six months, job opportunities and had thousands of pounds raised to help him.
If this support was available and could be marshalled so quickly, why was it not available before Monday’s attack?
Don’t get me wrong, this is exactly the sort of love, kindness and community that I enjoy and encourage in the world, but why did he have to prove that he was worthy? Why was he not worthy already?
I never ignore homeless people. I treat them no differently to other human beings I come across in my day. Even if I choose not to give them money, I will always look them right in the eye and say, I’m sorry I can’t help. They deserve the same respect I would give any other human. I give money, drinks, food and one very cold winter’s evening I gave a lovely man my thick (and favourite) winter scarf as I hated seeing him so cold and felt helpless to do anything. I’ll often stop and chat if I have time. The only reason I haven’t offered rooms to some homeless people is that I have young children and I must be cautious about who is around them, however this is caution I exercise for any stranger that I come across, not in relation to them being homeless.
I find myself at a quandary. I think it’s wonderful what people are doing for this man but it also makes me angry that there is such a fuss about his reaction being surprising. It’s not surprising! He is not a monster! He is a man who for reasons I am unaware of has ended up on the streets and homeless.
He is you or I.
What also of the many other people who ran to help? Other bystanders, the police, the ambulance crew, staff etc., will they also be given accommodation and rewarded for their bravery?
This leads to a greater question: why does society see the homeless as lesser or unhuman people? It’s not a question I am completely qualified to answer and I’m sure there’s a PhD student out there somewhere who’s thesis is this very thing.
These are just my uneducated thoughts about it.
We fear homelessness as evolutionarily we are meant to be in tribes; being ostracised meant death by starvation or by being eaten. We don’t want to associate with those ‘outside’ our pack in case we get ostracised by association. Far easier to ignore them.
We associate homeless people with dirt and being unclean; many wash regularly, but some do not so we literally do not wish to touch them: they are the untouchables.
Many have mental health disorders – often the reason they are on the streets. I used to be friends with a lovely man who had bi-polar. When he became manic he would paint his naked body green and go out. When the police found him he would say he was covered – in green paint. He was intelligent, funny and a generally wonderful person. When I was a child my mother befriended a homeless woman. This woman terrified me! She would scream at voices in her head, she stunk and never changed her clothes. I couldn’t understand why my mother would invite her in, feed her and offer to wash her clothes. When I grew up I found out this woman had watched her children burn to death in a house fire while they called for her. As a mum of five, I completely understood her retreat into her own mind.
We humans like predictability and when people become unpredictable, which poor mental health can cause them to do, we feel anxious as we can’t weigh up the risk they might present, so we get scared and back away.
Finally, I think we know we are just a redundancy, missed mortgage payment or unforeseen life event away from being homeless ourselves. That is a terrifying thought and again we just walk past quickly for fear of looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves there.
It should not be surprising that those who have suffered at the extremes of life, should be able to show empathy at the extremes of life and correct me if I’m wrong, but blowing up small children feels like an extreme of life.
I have found homeless people to be humourous, kind, warm people with life stories that are amazing. They are not monsters who can’t feel. They are, in fact, the opposite. They are sensitive souls who often feel too much, indeed some are medicating through drink and drugs because of these overwhelming feelings they cannot manage. They are exactly the people who would run into a building that others are running out of because they know how it feels to be alone, in pain and left behind and because they have an amazing sense of survival.
So, while I feel so much warmth and love for my fellow community of humans who have pulled together, this is not a one day event. There are 250,000 homeless in the UK, many children just like those killed on Monday. If we can rustle up this support in 48 hours, can we keep this going? If you really care you could donate to charities whose job this is 365 days a year, you could help out in shelters when it’s not Christmas, you could buy the Big Issue.
Can you treat the homeless just as you would any other human being? Can you look them in the eye, speak to them, ask them how their day is going, stop for a quick chat?
Do this now, today, tomorrow, don’t wait for an awful event to convince you these people are not monsters.
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(Statistics from Shelter Dec 16.)