My hands shook as I approached him. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to a complete stranger who calls the street corner his home?
When the task seems too daunting, we’re prone to run away. We want to avoid the hassle, bypass the difficulty, and ignore the need. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to turn a head and pretend you don’t see?
After all, what help can you really give? Where do you even start?
Yehuda Berg once said, “words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity”. Words have the energy and power to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble. We should never underestimate the change that our words can bring to other people’s lives.
It all starts with a “hello”.
And that’s exactly what I said when I approached him.
His name is Dennis. He’s 29, and he’s originally from St Petersburg, Russia. One cold Saturday night we saw him, shivering against the shutters of the First Trust Bank. As the rest of the city boomed with noisy laughter from those heading home to warm beds, Dennis, resting on his cardboard mattress, smiled as we shook hands.
It would have been easy to just stop there. Give him a smile, a hat, a sandwich, and walk away. But I wanted more. I wanted to hear his story.
You see, Dennis isn’t a project. Dennis wasn’t created to survive on the streets of Belfast through kind donations of sandwiches, clothes and lukewarm polystyrene cups of coffee. Dennis was created to thrive, to pursue his hopes and dreams, and to prosper.
Somebody needed to remind Dennis of that.
As I sat down beside him and offered him a beanie, his face immediately changed.
Bending forward, Dennis provided a small patch of his sleeping bag for me to sit on. Touched by his friendly gesture, I moved in closer, and asked about his story:
“I moved to Belfast from St Petersburg a few years ago to start a new life – I had no idea I would end up here”
“It’s funny,” he smirked, “I felt so welcome here six months ago – but now I’ve never felt more of an outcast in this city”
After several failed marriages and difficult family relationships at home, Dennis was ready to start a new chapter in a new place. Impressed by his remarkable English, I asked him what it was that brought him to this country:
“I got a job as a fisherman here. We sailed all over the Irish Sea, catching haddock, trout, sea bass, you name it! Like any job it had it’s ups and downs – but it was great. I would love to do it again”
As Dennis continued, his face began to darken:
“I fell in love with a girl here. Everything was great at the start – we moved into a house together, we had jobs that paid well, we had a mortgage – but in a matter of months, everything started to change. She was an alcoholic, and we both ended up getting addicted to alcohol and later to drugs. No matter what we did, we couldn’t stop. Within six months, I lost everything. My job, my partner, my mortgage, my home. My addiction stripped everything from me – I’ve nothing left”
In the last 10 years in Belfast, over 2,500 people have lost their lives to drugs. This never-ending problem that continues to plague our city with tragedy and unnecessary loss makes it almost impossible for those living on the streets to stay clean. However, with determination and hope for a better future, this is exactly what Dennis desires to do:
“I’ve been clean for a couple of months now. It’s difficult, but I don’t want to live my life like that anymore. I have dreams and ambitions just like anyone else. I’ve got a diploma in sports therapy – I would love to be a sports masseur. All I would need is practice to pick it up again. But at this rate – I would take anything. I just want a job!”
However, finding a job when you live on a street corner is a strenuous task. The wait can be a torment, and the rejection that often waits at the end of the process can be agonising. Nevertheless, when I asked Dennis what his biggest struggle was in living on the streets, his answer shocked me:
"It’s the looks you get from people passing by more than looking for a job that gets to me. They look at you like you're dirt on the street. They even stand by and call the police when you're just sitting there with nowhere else to go just because they don’t want to look at you - they think you're scum. Six months ago, I could have been them. They don't understand how easily this can happen to anyone"
I couldn’t believe how someone as sweet and honest as Dennis could feel as unworthy as he did. An hours conversation with him felt like 3 minutes. His determined pursuit for freedom and desire to build a better life despite the pain and loss he had experienced held me in awe, and it was an honour to sit with him and listen to his story.
A huge smile spread across Dennis’ cheeks when we reminded him of his infinite value and how much we wanted to come back and spend time with him again. In that brief hour, Dennis gave far more to me than anything I could give to him. I brought him a beanie, but he gave me courage.
As we said our goodbyes, Dennis responded:
“Thank you for your time guys – it means so much!”
Time. That's the gift that makes the difference. We cannot speak words of hope into someone’s life if we don’t first give them our time.
The looks we give, the words we offer, and the time we spend with others can bring profound impact to someone’s story. According to Edmund Burke: “nobody made greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little”. You can make a momentous difference to someone’s life simply by refusing to walk away.
It all starts with a “hello”.
- Judy Shaw