When I lived in Aberdeen (Scotland) in the late 90s/early 00s I regularly talked on and off to a man that sold a magazine for the homeless or those in vulnerable housing called The Big Issue outside the supermarket I would go to. To many he was invisible, not even a face in the street or another human being. He was not much older than I was so really hit home to me how life could be different, he was still someone else’s son or brother. I never learnt his name and he never learnt mine but still would stop to see how the other was. Now and again I would buy the magazine but usually I would give him the ‘free‘ from my “buy one get one free” offers in my food shopping, usually fruit such as oranges, bananas or apples, as rather give him that than money as a student I did not have and felt it was better to give him something to eat as could see how thin he was. By my final year in the city I moved away from the area, however, one evening I saw him walking along the main street, we recognised each other and to my delight he had got a home a few months previously. He was grateful for what I did, which to me was nothing but giving the time of day to another human being, which was only a couple of minutes once a month or so.
Fast forward to the present; for the last two years now I have been talking to another Big Issue seller but this time it is similar but different. For a start I know his name is Donald and we discuss his bad health, his history that made him homeless, to the world around us. When I first started to give him my ‘free’ tea from the supermarket I again saw the invisibility I had seen in Aberdeen, to which I was uncertain if was due to the upper-middle class nature of the area or that people had developed a blind spot to the homeless, and simply do not want to acknowledge such people exist. However, my actions prompted others to see us talking, which I will admit caused a few funny looks at first as not the sort of thing a Morningside lady would traditionally do (I grew up in the neighbouring Grange that has a similar reputation). However, a few regulars realised that the ‘free’ hot drink we got with a loyalty card was a way to pay to it forward as I was doing. In fact, he now has to turn down drinks or keep the cups as people are generous in their support, with many of us stopping for a good five to ten minutes to catch up with him. He also has been known to be given Easter eggs by children to other delights (sweet and savoury) from the store….he’s put on so much weight his doctor said he may need to go on a diet!
I will not give to beggars on the street for I have seen a few climb into their Mercedes cars after they have finished and some have become quite rude to me when I offered them something other than money. However, those that sell The Big Issue I understand how the selling works and the revenue they can get from it, dropping a random bar of chocolate or a bottle of water to them and catching their smile as I do is something I’ll never tire of…the gentleman who chased after me to say thank you could not understand at first as had not asked for it and that someone simply wanted to give to him. Equally I am fortunate in my city that there are places like the Social Bite that help the homeless by selling suspended drinks like teas or coffees and lunches, with one in four of their workforce formerly homeless and currently running a campaign to create a small village that will give them a home, job and the help to deal with issues they may have (details here). There are organisations such as Shelter that also help the homeless. However, what matters is we remember that these people could be any of us, our fathers or sisters, aunts to nephews, and be grateful for what we have now no matter how small it may seem compared with others as life can change in seconds. Do not judge or hate another for what they have as will never know their full story, and pay it forward because we can not for rewards (financial or otherwise).
© Fi S. J. Brown