An alley in the snow

Sometimes the unexpected can really make you stop and pay attention.

It’s cold in England right now. As in, it’s been snowing and below freezing. Right this moment it’s snowing and the temperature reads as -3C. We’ve been wrapping up, layering, hiding from the cold.

One night last week we were on our way to the cinema and a young homeless guy sitting in the alley asked for change. We stopped and had a chat with him, and it seemed clear no one had done so in a while. He looked both surprised and excited just to talk. When he heard my accent he told us about his travels through the States; he’d been all over, traveling from one coast to another. He rolled his eyes when he said Alabama and we all laughed.

He also told us he was getting enough money together to get into a hostel for the night, as the shelters were full. Someone had stolen his sleeping bag, so sleeping outside definitely wasn’t an option. He wished us well and we went on our separate ways.

I cried.

There I was, warm, fed, and spending money on a movie, when this guy was just hoping he wouldn’t have to sleep on the street, in the snow.

I know we all have our own paths in life. I know how close to the edge many of us are. More than once I’ve thought of the idiom that goes something like, “there but for the grace of god go I”. I’m not religious, but I do feel like I’ve been blessed to be where I am today; sometimes that path that leads to the story in the alley on a winters night is all too close to pulling us in as main characters. We have a sleeping bag in the car now, should we run into the situation again and can help. Still, I berate myself for not doing more for him that night. I continue to feel guilty.

I can’t stop thinking of that young guy. I hope he found a warm bed. I hope he finds his way back to the life that took him on travels. To be honest, I feel lost for words when I think of him. It makes me want to be a better person, it makes me want to scream at the unfairness of life. It makes me angry, ashamed, frustrated. It humbles me and the sense of gratitude inside threatens to tear through my skin.

So, as we head into the final run-up to the holidays, I’m going to focus on what I have not what I don’t), how insanely lucky I am in every way, and how important it is to remember that we are all humans on a journey. Kindness costs nothing, but can mean so much.

And we can only hope we’re never sitting in an alley praying someone stops to notice us.

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4 thoughts on “An alley in the snow

  1. I’m sorry you cried and feel guilty. It’s so relatable, though. This is my exact experience every time I have a similar encounter. The good thing is it helps you see your blessings and spurs you to both thought and action. I hope the guilt subsides soon and that you find joy in the blessings. Peace.

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  2. Poignant entry.

    “There but for the grace of god go I,” a phrase I seem to use more frequently over the years. I am surely blessed, and I’m reminded of that fact many times during the day and every night when I cuddle up to my honey, warm, safe, secure and loved — not cold, not hungry, and not worried about surviving. Technically I’ve been homeless before, but was lucky enough to have a friend’s couch to sleep on. Or maybe that means, technically, I really haven’t been homeless – because I had somewhere to go.

    This is the time of year we seem to worry about the homeless more. They’re in the news and shelters are discussed and designated, so they don’t freeze to death during our festive holiday season. But, in reality they are there all the time, facing the same hardships regardless of weather. The homeless are on the streets, in the middle of everything, but on the edge of society: Visible yet invisible at the same time. They are ignored on many levels, disregarded, but ever present.

    The institutions that are meant to prepare little blobs of skin and teeth for the construct of “civilization” or “society” have let these people fall through the cracks.

    You probably weren’t looking for a diatribe about the homeless, but I’m giving you one just the same. I’m contrary that way.

    The “homeless” conundrum: What do we do about those people who litter the streets with their mere presence? Sounds harsh, I know, but that is the reality of it. That is how the governmental bodies, commercial enterprises, and many people view the situation. The homeless are not seen as people rather an annoyance, like seagulls, pigeons, or rats. We may carry blankets or hand out a sandwich, spare change, or cigarettes to them. Good Samaritans set up shelters on those icy, deadly nights. But shelters cost money, and while everyone seems to have enough money to have smart-tech, many people just cannot afford to give their money away. Shelters pop-up for the extreme weather situations, but so many people are out there suffering – cold, hungry, dirty, slowly dying…

    If we address the people sleeping on the streets are we addressing the real issue?

    If the governmental ruling bodies could bother to budget in a bunkhouse or rooming houses for the homeless people wanting to get off the streets, would there be less homeless people? If we raise taxes to funnel some money into specific centers to help the homeless – hostels with counseling, job training schemes, nurses, psychologists, drug rehab, life coaches – would there be fewer homeless people?

    Most people are homeless by circumstance (loss of job, escaping abuse, psychological issues). Something caused them to lose their home, or an aspect of their lifestyle (alcoholism, drugs, psychotic behavior) put them there. Others may have an ideology that keeps them from buying into the corrupt system – the machine that eats your soul. A few are the modern day equivalent of John Muir, wandering the wilderness with a knapsack and a loaf of bread.

    Once homeless, it is difficult to remedy. A few may not actually have the desire to change their situation, but for those that want to get off the streets, it is a complicated process. Arduous. One that would be hard for a healthy, self-assured, erudite individual to work through, let alone someone who has been sleeping rough for weeks, if not months or years.

    The social unit called “family” or the societal construct called “the educational system” has let these people down. Many don’t have the ability to pull themselves off the streets because of that fact. They don’t have the knowledge, social skills, or interpersonal skills to grapple with the system. They need someone to help them do what needs to be done to change the road they are on – to guide them and give them the tools they need to revise their view of themselves and the world. They need a nurturing knowledgeable person to guide them out of the streets and into a self-sustaining lifestyle. That system of guidance needs to be built and paid for, otherwise you’re just putting a plaster on the bedsore when you really need to get the patient out of the bed.

    But if you built it, would they come?

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  3. This tears at my heart; more so this year than any other (which those close to me will understand). I too feel blessed and thankful for a daughter with such a beautiful soul that she shared this story. I love you Victoria, my baby girl always and forever.

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