My Night with the Homeless

OJ WATSON was having a normal Sunday evening out in Life, up until he let a homeless man stay in his room…

The decision to let a tramp sleep in your room prompts a lot of questions.

I found myself being asked quite a lot of them last week. Did he take anything? Did you make him breakfast? Is that why your room smells? In hall the next day all my friends reacted differently, but it was clear everyone felt awkward and didn’t really know what to say. There is no doubt that the issue of homelessness makes people feel uncomfortable, and it’s one we often find very hard to relate to – I certainly do.

I’d be lying if I said it was a pre-meditated act of charity, but rather one that I stumbled into in the small hours of the morning as I stumbled out of Life.

Until that point, my night had been like a lot of Cambridge Sunday evenings; formal and a power hour at Life. As I left and headed home I saw a man sitting outside TK Maxx with his dog and a chessboard. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but given it was still early (and I was perhaps still a little merry from Life) I sat down and made the first move. After a dozen moves or so I was soaked through from the storm, so I stood up, thanked him for the game, gave him some money I had been saving for a kebab and left. He thanked me back and then beckoned over a couple of other students to carry on the game. They weren’t interested, and tossed back a “rook to e4’ comment, laughing.

I happened to be heading in the same direction as these students so I decided to start a conversation. I asked why they didn’t fancy a game of chess. Perhaps I wanted to feel good about myself, perhaps I wanted to make them reconsider what they had said, but either way their responses hurt – belief that you shouldn’t encourage the homeless, that they could make their way off the street if they wanted, and that that they were sure he found their joke amusing. Partly I was still quite drunk, and probably also that I was annoyed that these two students happened to be from the same college that had beaten me at football earlier that day, but I returned to the man with the chessboard to ask him if he had in fact found it funny. He hadn’t. I stayed to chat with him and his friend Phil when a group of students from Jesus walked past and started playing chess. They got owned.

I was about to head home at that point when Phil asked me if I wanted to come and get a cigarette from some of the students by the back of Life. I had never struggled to bum a smoke outside Life, but that night every student looked through Phil and me. I wasn’t surprised, but it still hurt, and by then I really wanted a smoke. Phil gave me a few butt ends to roll a cigarette with. By then the storm was getting a lot worse, so I told Phil he should come stay on my sofa to get out the rain. He did, and that was my night.

A bit confused the next day I spoke to the students behind Streetbite; a student society who provide both food and conversation to those who find themselves on the streets. This then reminded me of my friend Katie, who had asked me last year if I wanted to help with soup runs that she organized through SVP, a Christian organization dedicated to helping those in need. I had wanted to help but never did. Maybe it’s for the same reasons as why some of my friends found it easier to joke about my night than talk about the issues: homelessness is an uncomfortable idea to confront and it’s often easier not to. It’s not something we can fix right away but it’s not something I’m going to ignore anymore. Talking to Katie, it became clear what was most important was actually doing something. She’s right: handing out soup, sandwiches and cups of tea is not going to magically fix things, but it’s a way to try and build up relationships with people who want respect as much, if not more than a smoke. It costs far less and it’s worth far more.

“Our worst failing in dealing with homelessness as a society and as students is not the punitive attitude that unfortunately often surrounds discussions of the problem” Katie told me “but our too-frequent neglect of the entire issue.

“None of us are innocent of having walked past someone asking for a coffee or even a friendly word as if they didn’t exist.”

They’re marginalised, desperate and unlucky people. If you’ve ever talked to anyone who sleeps rough you’ll often hear a story of someone in a bad situation who couldn’t quite cope. All we’re doing by ignoring them is making a difficult situation worse. When you ignore them on the street you make them feel like they’re not human.

Both Annabel (aw593) from SVP Soup Runs and Jen (jcd57) from Streetbite are always looking for extra hands. Please do get in touch if you’re interested.