There may be many things about my life which are far from perfect, but on the whole, my life is very good. Really very good. I have shelter, warmth, food, health and opportunities. Nothing makes you appreciate that more than plunging yourself into a world (or the world) filled with those who do not.
In writing this, I am reminded of an episode of Friends in which Phoebe is adamant that there is such a thing as an unselfish act and tries to prove it, while Joey believes it’s impossible. After several failed attempts (including letting a bee sting her so that it will look ‘cool’ in front of its bee friends), Phoebe gives up; as Joey says, there is always that ‘good feeling’ you get from doing something altruistic – that warm buzz which lingers even when you think you are doing something purely because it will help others. Self promotion is one of the more awful motivations. Big oil/cigarette companies devote large budgets to off-setting their guilty consciences (or, more lucratively, those of their consumers) by funding health education and clean water schemes in Africa. I recently dated a man whose business involves filming such corporate projects all over the world, but as he said in their defence, ‘at least they’re doing it, whatever the reason’.
I often think that volunteering at my local homeless centre benefits me just as much (if not more) as it benefits those who attend it.
I make my living by working as a model, mostly for projects with an artistic lean. Essentially, in its deepest (non-deep) nutshell, I help create pretty pictures. I am in many ways proud of what I do and quite honoured to be able to do it (my role is often very creatively active; I’m not just a mannequin); I manage myself and my work has inspired artists and photographers all over the world through a busy, self-employed career. Still, the ease with which many of my friends and colleagues discuss their jobs has never been fully afforded to me; when asked about my job by strangers I can feel quite embarrassed. While I strongly believe in the value of art (and am soon attending a discussion group on the question ‘What is the point of the arts?’ which I’m sure will enlighten me even after five years in this ‘industry’), I’m hardly a doctor. I’m hardly saving lives, or fixing problems, or bringing great relief to those who are suffering.
Maybe it’s important to realise that we don’t have to each be saving the world (we are, after all, just odd little organisms stuck on a sphere which spins in a vast universe; we shouldn’t, as the profile of every man on every dating site seems to say ‘take ourselves too seriously’ or try to do too much). Still, I have always felt a strong need to do something else alongside my job (which my mother jokingly [and apparently proudly] paraphrases as ‘flaunting myself around the world’); for me, it’s not enough. And I have often felt a pull towards those who are marginalised, abused or ignored.
And I have always been drawn to or fascinated by the things which terrify me. I think that’s a normal part of human nature (think of horror films; what’s the point of those?). As a sufferer of claustrophobia on many levels, one of my greatest fears is being imprisoned. Relatedly, I suppose, I am quite keen on the idea of working with prisoners one day, probably in relation to creative writing/literacy; because I can’t imagine their daily hell, and because, precisely, I can imagine it. (And isn’t the point of arts to help, to express, to understand and connect? Even rehabilitate?)
There is also that fear that you, too, could be in their position. You could become homeless, quite easily. More easily than may be imagined. When I speak to the guests at the homeless centre, chatting while they eat their plate of food and drink their tea and sit in the warmth for a while, I am frequently amazed. I occasionally consider myself reasonably intelligent, but I have had all sorts of things explained to me by those who’ve stumbled in for a quick cup of tea, from the hadron collider, to politics, to religious histories, to economics, in conversations that have left me feeling incredibly stupid, uneducated and dull.
This shouldn’t be remarkable; of course there are intelligent, curious and interesting people in all walks of life, from the very rich to the very poor, and it isn’t worth mentioning, except that it is. The word ‘homeless’ means something specific in too many people’s minds; it means ‘messy’, ‘stinking’, ‘lazy’, ‘dangerous’; the embarrassing ‘other’ to be walked past and uncomfortably ignored. (Because it is uncomfortable to ignore those who ask for our help, as it should be.)
Too often, ‘homeless people’ are portrayed as drug-addled lay-abouts who smell and mutter while clinking empty bottles. Yes, some are like that (and mental health issues, unfortunately, are rife), but just as many are not. Sometimes when I am chatting to a homeless person it feels exactly as though I were striking up a conversation with a new acquaintance in a bar; in discovering who they are and what they like to do, you can easily forget why you’re there and why they are – and, again, this shouldn’t be remarkable or worth comment, but is.
What really is remarkable, I think, is that absolutely anyone could be homeless or in dire straits, and you might not know it from looking at them. That is the number one thing I’ve learnt from volunteering at a drop-in centre. You just can’t predict the type of person that will be there using the facilities. Skilled, unskilled, retired, young, well-dressed, filthy, shy, boisterous, polite, sober, anxious, depressed, ambitious, reformed, tidy, irritating, kind, troubled, local, immigrant, amusing, bored, aggressive and grateful; all these individuals are there, doing what they can, making mistakes and progress. Often, it is only the fact that we volunteers wear name tags and they don’t, that noticeably distinguishes us in appearance or demeanour.
The thing is – back to Phoebe’s impossible selfless act – it could conceivably be me there, one day, or it could have been if my life/background were different. I volunteer partly because I have to believe that if I were in that situation, someone else would be kind to me. Someone else would bother to ask me how I was, or get me a drink, or treat me like a normal human being. When I was thinking about writing this article in the shower this morning, I had a thought which has begun to fade a bit in the way that dreams often do when you wake up, the gist of which was: we’re all the same thing. We’re all simultaneously living each other’s lives and doing multiple things, being multiple people; if it is possible that I could, by some awful turn of events, become homeless and desperate, then perhaps in a sense (on some level; in some reality) I am. So in helping those others I am sort of helping myself.
The stories I’ve heard have been heart-breaking. Men struggling between honour and self-respect, not wanting to throw out abusive partners who have taken over their house. Men and women who repeatedly commit small-scale theft of shops or vandalism before calling the police to inform on themselves in hope of being sent to prison, for the warmth in winter and guaranteed meals each day. Long-term unemployment wreaking havoc on daily survival, or employers owing thousands of pounds due to bureaucratic confusion. The careful collection of dogends after a Saturday night to curate self-made rollies (bus stops are goldmines, since smokers must dump hardly-touched cigarettes when their buses arrive). Fantasies of one day owning a boat and sailing far out into the ocean. Relationship breakdown and illness.
It may be heart-breaking for me to see ageing, decent men in well-turned out suits and dignity, shuffling among plastic chairs to find a space to eat their free dinner, but it isn’t my place to pity them; I know, as I try to engage them in conversation, perhaps eking out some semblance of knowledge of what got them here, that they often think I won’t understand – some pretty young thing with affluent guilt – but if I can make them feel better somehow, just briefly, just in a ten-minute conversation while I move across the room, that is a good thing. Perhaps my respect and interest is laughable, but perhaps it is everything they need at that point of their day.
I don’t consider myself very important to the drop-in centre. Though I have volunteered there many times now, I do not attend with the admirable regularity and dedication of its core group of workers (due largely to my irregular work/travel schedule), though I am helping now with the literacy/creative writing project when I can. Before that, I helped with the art group, which transformed a room of the centre into a playgroup-esque atmosphere of wild abandon and quiet work, during which homeless pilates instructors, addicts and mud-stained labourers painstakingly drew fantastical scenes, pencil sketches of Dürer’s praying hands and acrylic abstracts of those they loved. Now, I help deal more in ideas and stories: what would you change if you ruled the world? If they could speak, what do you think the city streets would say about the people who walked along them? What would you write in a letter to your past self?
My present and future self would write to my past self that volunteering at a homeless centre has been a very good thing in my life, even if it only plays a small part; even if I do. I think life is made up of small parts. Art and unexpected connection; maybe that’s the point.