‘I’m running away from something’: We spent an evening talking to the homeless on the Strand

A night on one of KCL’s Hot Choc Soc outreach sessions

christmas homeless KCL kings London sleeping rough strand uni

Like many, until a couple of weeks ago, I did little more than smile apologetically when confronted with a homeless person. I didn’t see what I could do to help them, so did nothing at all.

This changed when my flatmates asked me to join them on one of King’s Hot Choc Soc’s outreach sessions on the Strand. The Hot Chocolate Society aim to offer a little comfort to homeless people with a warm drink, a banana and some friendly conversation.

Phoebe Chapman, a first year Philosophy student who volunteers with Hot Choc Soc, told The Tab: “It’s the small things that make them happy – even just an acknowledgement.

“There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve helped a totally helpless person.”

Off to an outreach session

Off to an outreach session

We were out for an hour and a half, during which I met some rough sleepers more willing to talk than others, and one man who assumed I spoke Romani (the language of Europe’s nomadic travellers).

The first man we spoke to was an ex-offender: he had been out of prison for for 6 months and was frustrated at being unable to find work.

The second was a Russian war veteran who simply said: “I’m running away from something back home.”

The third took our offerings with a kind “God bless”, while the fourth was a friendly Geordie with an equally friendly Staffy named Tyson (after Mike Tyson, of course.)

Then, we met Billy in Charing Cross station. If you ever pass through there, you may have seen him – he’s a pretty popular guy who’s even chummy with the Met Police.

We talked about everything from lasagne recipes to bad jokes, and how the best hot chocolate is made with Carnation condensed milk (at this point I was noting down his advice).

Billy told us about his love for Nat King Cole, and began singing “Smile” for us in his soulful voice.

Home?

Home?

As he became more comfortable with us, Billy talked about his belief in the “man upstairs”. I wondered how he keeps his faith, when his situation is so desperate.

With a smile, Billy told us: “You learn to take each day as it comes. We’re all in danger of setting the bar too high and expecting too much from life, when it’s really about minor achievements.”

His ability to appreciate the small things, like having someone to talk to, is his key to contentment.

Before we left, I asked Billy if he had any children.

“Ah, now that’s a tough subject,” he said. Billy’s daughter died a month ago while waiting for a heart transplant. She was 15-years-old and had a pink coffin at her funeral.

“The 20th December is going to kill me”, he said, “That would have been her 16th birthday.”

I had no words left.

A good night's sleep is impossible

A good night’s sleep is impossible

Back up on the street I was beginning to see that homelessness isn’t only an emotional trauma, but also a logistical nightmare. We heard rumours of a hierarchy among rough sleepers on the Strand. Those who dominate the area move the others on, making being new on the streets even more difficult.

Tensions also run high in the evenings, when large numbers of people wait for a delivery of left-over hospital meals.

“They’re almost inedible”, one man told us, “but if there isn’t enough to go around then fights can start.”

By the end of the session, I felt genuinely humbled by how grateful they all were for us giving up such a small amount of our time.

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Some members have started the ‘London’s Invisible Faces‘ blog

Since spending the evening with Hot Choc Soc, I’ve been giving the issue of homelessness a lot of thought.  We’re lucky enough to live in a country where lots of people get the support they need, but a large number still slip through the net. And it’s pretty shocking to think that just opening up Buckingham Palace’s 775 rooms could go a long way to solving London’s homelessness problem overnight.

This Christmas, 7,500 people from all walks of life, who’ve lost careers, families and homes through mistakes or sheer bad luck, will sleep rough. It’s a tragedy that they shouldn’t be given a second shot at the kind of life I’ve always taken for granted.

I’m never going to understand how these people really feel. But I have learned that a warm smile and a “hello” is a start.

If you’re interested in getting involved in outreach for the homeless, visit Hot Choc Soc’s site here.