A man, maybe sixty or sixty-five years old, approached me on the street as I was hurrying back home. I had stopped to tie my shoes.
‘I do not want money, I do not want money.’ He said as if to reassure me. He had a blanket draped over his shoulders.
He apparently wanted me to take him somewhere and buy him food. I was caught off guard, in the midst of what seemed like a pressing schedule of Things I felt behind with but realised, shortly after, I had SA (Self-Assigned) and which had no TU (True Urgency) or OP (Outside Pressure).
‘I am hungry.’ The man shrugged. The smile he gave with this gesture was more of a grimace.
I had already instinctively set my course, walking away from him. I made a sympathetic gesture and said ‘sorry, I need to go’ as I walked off — slowly, as if to communicate reluctance. Reluctance, perhaps, would console the man. I had no cash on me — though he didn’t want money — , and it wasn’t clear where I would go to get him food, or how that would work. There was no obvious place I could go within a stone’s throw, at least. Those were the broad strokes of my thought process.
I’m not great at dealing with situations like this as they happen. Not confident in my ability to gauge someone’s intent and honesty on the spot, and determine the best response, without some space to think. I tend to refuse all requests from strangers in public as the default course of action, when there’s room for doubt.
The expression this man had as I walked away stuck with me. I was only a minute or two down the road when I decided he was genuinely hungry and in need, and that I could have helped him if I just thought with a little flexibility and allowed myself to veer from my default response in the moment. I felt like a selfish and uncharitable dickhead. As I continued to walk home I thought of ways I could correct course.
When I got home I opened the fridge, but there was nothing practical to take to the man unless he wanted a block of cheese, some raw vegetables, and other similarly non-ready-to-eat ingredients. I’ll go to the supermarket and get something to give him, I thought. It was closing in less than 20 minutes, which lit a fire under my ass and spurred me into action without thinking too much.
I got to the supermarket, picked up a few pre-prepared things, and went back to where the man approached me. It was more than half an hour later. Predictably, he had vanished. I wondered the neighbourhood, scanning the streets.
It didn’t take long to realise there was a clock ticking on my search: curfew was approaching. I continued searching the neighbourhood for about half an hour, but once the clock struck the hour I thought I better start heading back home. Failure. I left the food next to an un-manned pile of belongings on the street that obviously belonged to a homeless person, thinking there’s a good chance its owner could also use some food.
Actively searching for this man as curfew approached opened my eyes to some things. It forced me to consider some basic questions. Where do the homeless go after curfew? What happens to them? And how does the curfew, and the pandemic, change what it means to be homeless?
Likely, the man approached me asking for food because curfew was approaching. The streets would soon be empty except for the homeless and the police. All businesses closed. Good citizens confined to their quarters. Those hours, from 10PM until dawn, must feel very strange when you are homeless. Second class citizens, fending for themselves in a very literal way.
I was made momentarily aware of an unwilling, underground society in the city whose existence is obvious, but is not often felt. A mirror reflection of those in control of, or at least able to participate in, modern times. People who keep moving, their locations adrift, unable to stay in the same place without being hassled or running headlong into basic calamities of survival. Always there, moving through the city. Often hidden in plain sight, taking refuge in alcohol and whatever cheap escapes are available. Rolling stones.
As I walked back to my house, a few minutes after curfew had officially come into effect, I saw another old man pacing back and forth in a square. I had noticed him earlier and thought he was a man getting fresh air and talking on his phone via an earpiece. An ordinary sight. He was wearing a suit. Seeing him again, still pacing back and forth in the square and talking out loud, rather than rushing home before curfew starts and the police intervene, laid bare his status. He was homeless—a fact that suddenly seemed obvious. Walking in circles and talking to himself. He had things to say, and they had been bursting out of him, whether or not anyone was around or paying attention.