To give to street dwellers or not to give? Rhys David reflects on a modern dilemma.
I spoke to Wayne, a homeless man in his 40s, possibly 30s in Cardiff the other day, his time on the streets having made his age impossible to guess accurately. I had just left a local Kaffeehaus where I had enjoyed their Wiener – soused herring and cream cheese on rye bread with red onion – and a Cafetiere, all for £11.
My meal had followed a visit to a piano recital by a brilliant left-handed pianist, Nicholas McCarthy, who had overcome the handicap of being born with only one arm to become a concert performer travelling the world to play his repertoire of Bach, Scriabin, Bellini, and, his piece de resistance, his own transcription for one hand of a well-known sonata by Rachmaninov.
It was humbling enough to think about how much he had achieved and how difficult life must be when even cutting up food or opening a door when you are carrying something, but Wayne was different again.
He cut a pitiful picture standing in the rain just outside the arcade I had been in, opposite the international fashion shops in one of Cardiff’s main streets, and close to where a new branch of The Ivy restaurant will open soon. He was dressed shabbily and carrying a threadbare blanket, and crying audibly as he begged, “Help Me”. This was not the usual bobble-capped, sad young man, sitting in a doorway with his dog.
I must admit to being usually unsympathetic to beggars, many of whom may have a drug habit to support, but I have been known to pass on bananas, cereal or other chocolate bars rather than money. Wayne, however, looked so needy I felt I had to come up with cash in his case, and I reached not very generously for a £1 coin. Amid his effusive “Thank you, Sir’s” I asked him, “How on earth did you get into this situation?”
“Do you know the Sony plant in Bridgend,” he asked. I assented. “I lost my job and my house when I was made redundant, my partner was pregnant, and we split up.” I did not ask too many further details as it seemed a story I had read before in press coverage of the homeless and it seemed believable. He went on to say he had been begging since the night before, had not eaten since yesterday (it was now 3pm) and was trying to save £17.50 to stay in a hostel where he could get a bath, a meal and a bed. His day’s total so far was about £6.
I queried whether it really was the case that he would have to pay for a hostel bed, and he assured me it was just so in three hostels he mentioned in Cardiff, including the Salvation Army. They would turn him away, he insisted, if he was unable to pay. Wayne was fluent, clean and did not smell of drink or have any of the obvious signs of drug-taking so I found myself reaching again into my pocket and this time fetching out a £10 note, which should, I calculated, take him close to his target for the day.
I told him he must see a doctor, but he said he was just regarded as another paranoid schizophrenic. He had started hearing voices since being on the streets, partly because of the rough treatment he received from unsympathetic and especially drunken louts. “I’ve lost half my teeth from being beaten up (he indeed had) and been weed on,” he told me. I also told him to ditch his rag blanket. It was his only possession in the world, I was ashamed to learn.
I pride myself on being nobody’s fool and would normally say to myself in such situations that it was much better to give to the relevant charity (as I do), though not in the quantities I perhaps should. Somehow, I could not help believing Wayne and feeling deeply sorry for him.
Was I being conned? Did Wayne live in a modest but reasonable property somewhere, get up each morning, grab his blanket and head off for the city centre, returning at night with his takings? Was he really telling the truth when he told me he had to collect money simply to be given a bed in a hostel, with a lot of other homeless persons? Did he not, as he told me, have a single relative in Bridgend? He was of an age to have aunts and uncles still, and presumably cousins? Would they all slam the door on him? School friends, former work colleagues?
Were his little girl’s curls, on which he swore that he was not on drugs, real? Was he avoiding hostels because of debts to drug dealers, as is sometimes said to be the case? Have I unwittingly put profits into a drug dealer’s hands and prevented Wayne from being forced though his own impecuniosity to quit and accept treatment? If someone destitute – as Wayne clearly was – presents him or herself to the local council will they not be helped regardless?
I passed Wayne again later by which time he had bought a cup of coffee. I did not blame him for indulging in that little luxury (for him), even though I was intending my funds to secure him a hostel place. He greeted me again with copious Thank You’s, all embarrassingly accompanied by the poor man’s respectful “Sir”. He was looking more cheerful now and I remembered that not having eaten myself before going to my pre-lunch concert I had been into Poundland and bought a £1 nine bar Twix pack, only one of which I had had myself. I took the remaining eight out and gave them to him to have with his coffee.
Perhaps I was naïve, and the authorities know all about Wayne (a small variation on his real name). Whatever the case the £12 that my encounter unexpectedly cost meant nothing to me in the grand scheme of things but was perhaps a welcome sign of kindness in a harsh world to someone else. Anyway, I had another rich man’s event to attend, with buffet, at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Only two thirds of the buffet were eaten, but perhaps it was not wasted as I saw some students being invited to help themselves as we made our way out ……
October 16th, 2019