In the last of a series on his nights with the homeless, Fabian Collier tells more stories of his experiences.
Well, another 2 weeks, and another fortnight experiencing Bristol's remarkable homeless population. Vulnerable, and neglected, they are often bafflingly cheerful, and unfailingly polite people. People who have been close to my heart for a good long while now.
One homeless man who perfectly embodies the inexplicable yet inspiring juxtaposition of good cheer in the face of relentless hostility and hopelessness is "Mark.” He had lost everything of his old life at one fell swoop. His partner was arrested and, at the same time, his own property and possessions were seized, leaving him to start all over again; adrift with the sky for a roof and only his guitar left to call his own. Despite his sudden poverty and the uphill battle he faced, he was brimming with sunny positivity. All due, he said, to the salvation of banter and camaraderie he shared with other musicians, whom he had found when he was at his very lowest.
> A comfort can lie in religion, or at least spirituality
They had liked him for what he was and had spurred him into joining them on their nomadic journey. They had given him acceptance, friendship, and purpose. They had believed in him, if you like. Proving that you can always make something of anything, particularly with a sense of belonging, of having your “tribe.” His fellow musician "Ben" made us laugh by sharing the method of demise he'd prefer; such as being trampled by cows. His reasoning being that you can't hear those ways of dying and not smile. Even in death he wanted to cheer people up.
But it’s not all smiles from the gutter, or inspirational fresh starts. Some have troubling, chequered pasts, which have led to severe lasting trauma. Their faces can carry reminders of dark and damaging violence - tear drop tattoos, for instance: take from that what you will. But people still, and in need of recognition and compassion. Some of us are but 3 paycheques from the same situation, a reminder of the frailty of our place in the world.
A comfort can lie in religion, or at least spirituality, and in having a concern for others, in looking out, not in. Resulting in one of the most heartening and touching memories of my life so far which is when I met "Sophie". She prayed for us from her cardboard bed damp on a grimy pavement. And in turn she encouraged us to pray with her. Readers, I cried.
A beautiful moment, perfect in its humanity, humility, and positivity. A grubby crocheted blanket spoke of happier days. Simple point I'm sure, but with the world seeming pretty weird at times, it’s important not to bottle up your emotions, but to confide in others (whether friends, or even complete strangers such as The Samaritans), and to do the same for them. Mental illness has become ever more prevelent of late as demonstrated through the recent Mental Health march. In the words of Morrisey, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind.
80 new homeless people a month in #BRISTOL https://t.co/cztMwHoxCd#ukhousing #homelessness #roughsleeping #homeless— #HousingFirst UK (@HousingFirstUK) June 1, 2018
So from Mark and his fresh start and inspiring outlook to a timely, wake-up call on the fragility of this hair-raising, heart-breaking and heart-pounding, worthwhile journey we call life, to the dark and ever-relevant spectre of suicide and mental illness. The sharp turn to demoralising aggression which “Paul" has faced from fellow homeless people has seen him attacked 3 times in the last 2 weeks. They have robbed him of what little he had and had almost dragged him into a river at one point while the tide was in - Why, you ask, why turn on one with as little as you? He hadn’t wanted to share his drugs with them, that’s why.
In his position 24 hours is a long time to keep afloat, to keep a grip on any sort of sanity, and comforting habits are hard to kick. Societal apathy leaves him feeling he has no option, but to seek out chemical self-help. He is scared, and his life seems pointless. Meanwhile, his debtors draw nearer, the panic increases, the utter sense of powerlessness, married with a grim awareness of being part architect of the vicious cycle of his own dismal situation. He wants to die.
It’s not about me, but I like to think it helped just listening to him. So we should all be compassionate and empathetic as much as possible- difficult I know, easy to dismiss I know (I've done it myself) but we all make mistakes we shouldn't have to give up everything to pay for them even if we often do. Let's all try to do better- myself included; I know I often fall below the mark, I encourage and preach to my shame.
Featured image: Unsplash/Randy Jacob
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