“Hope is the only thing stronger than fear”
- Richard Ludlum
We would never have seen him if we hadn’t turned that corner.
Tucked away under a quiet shop window, we heard him before we saw him.
“Any spare change?”
Handing him a cup of tea, and sitting down next to him on his cardboard bed, we asked about his story.
Who was he? Where did he come from? How did he end up on the streets on Belfast begging for change?
He shared his story.
“I’m John, I’m 50 years of age and I’ve been living on the streets for years. London, Dublin, Belfast, you name it. I grew up in a very violent home. I was beaten up from age 4 to 14. Then I finally got the stage where I was old enough to protect my brothers and sisters.
My family have been through everything – physical violence, sexual assault, death – I never learned how to cope with it all. My mother died when I was in prison, then I came to Belfast after my father passed away. I had nothing left back home in the south of Ireland.
I have three beautiful daughters who I miss terribly. Their mother died of a drug overdose. I love them, but with the way I am now I don’t want them to see me like this. I want to come see them when I’m right and off the streets”.
As he paused, I asked him what the worst part about being homeless is.
His answer? Loneliness.
The pain of being cast aside and left alone was worse than the cold, bitter nights on the streets or the constant hunger pangs he experienced daily.
He took a sip of tea and continued.
“I’m here on my own at night and I’m always wondering where I’m going to sleep. I really would love people to stop on the streets and just speak to me.
It’s lonely. I do feel suicidal, I do get a lot of suicidal thoughts.
I’ve often walked out to the bridge. One night the tide was coming in, and it was coming in fast. I was going to jump in.
I was going to jump in.
Only I thought of my little grandchild. I’m a grandfather. That’s what stopped me. Otherwise I don’t think I would be here”.
He took a long, deep breath before starting again. He continued as he looked up to the sky above him.
“There’s definitely good and bad in this world, but I’m not one of the bad ones. Anything bad I have done – I’ve paid the price for it. I’ve never killed anyone, I’ve never robbed anyone. I’ve had fights, loads of fights, yes. But that’s it.
The people of Belfast need to know more about homelessness. There is a massive problem with drug dealers – especially in hostels. It’s impossible to get away from it when you live on the streets.
But I’m trying. That’s all I really can do.
Try. Just try.
I may be homeless, but I don’t do any harm”.
He readjusted his position on the concrete ground with a painful outburst of breath as he continued.
I didn’t sleep much last night. I lay on a cobbled street all night – and the pain in my legs, and my hips and my arms – it’s horrible. It took me a while to come around when I woke up – the pain was unbelievable.
I’m 50 years of age. I’m too old for this. I just want it to stop”.
His despair was tangible.
And how could it not be? After all that John had been through, how could you not want to find anyway to end the pain?
Then I asked him a question that he had perhaps never really though of before.
What keeps you going?
He thought quietly for a few moments.
“Hope I guess. That I’ll get to see my daughters and grandchild again. Hope that things will change – that life doesn’t have to end like this”.
That’s what keeps us going.
Through every hardship, every addiction, every trial and battle that we face – we must hold onto hope. We must believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel in order to overcome the darkness right in front of us.
As we walked away from John, I couldn’t stop thinking about how close he came to ending it all.
How suicidal thoughts haunt him daily. How he almost jumped off that bridge to end his life.
But he didn’t. He stopped himself, because he thought of his family.
He believed that there was still a chance to be the grandfather he longs to be to his grandchild, and it gave him hope.
Before we left, we reminded John of that. To never give up on hope. To believe that life’s circumstances can and will change if he keeps holding onto hope. To never go to that bridge and believe that all is lost.
He thanked us for spending time with him, and making him feel that little bit less lonely that day.
It didn’t take much from us, but it meant the world to him.
I wonder how many people we could miss because we choose not to turn that corner, or stop in our tracks.
I wonder how many more people could be filled up with hope if each one if us took the time to stop, listen, and show that they care.
I wonder how many journeys to the bridge we could stop before it’s too late.
The world needs to know that there is always hope.
It’s time for us to share it.