“We’re not all monsters, you know?”
- Ross, Belfast
It was one of those cold, wet days that you wouldn’t even want a dog wandering around in.
Hunched over under a tiny black umbrella for one, three of us set off to bring hope to the homeless community in Belfast.
Fifteen minutes in, we were drenched. No one in their right mind would sit in conditions like that unless they had nowhere else to go. The city was barren, and we were beginning to wonder whether we should call it a day.
But then, we spotted him.
Curled up under a shop sign, shivering on his cardboard mattress was a very cold, wet man.
His name is Ross, and he’s originally from Dublin. We introduced ourselves, and asked about his story. Within moments, he was telling us about life on the streets, and how he wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy.
It wasn’t hard to see why.
“My marriage broke up. I had no other choice but this – it was either make my partner homeless, and let the children suffer without her, or let the children have their mother and I’ll be homeless. So now I’m here”.
We asked him if he received any help from hostels or local charities to provide him with shelter. He told us that drugs circulate around hostels like wildfire, and that is a life he would prefer to stay clear from.
“People come with preconceived notions of what I’m really like – that homeless people are bad, and to avoid us at all costs.
But we’re not all drug addicts or alcoholics or thieves, we’re not bad men. We’re just people who are down on our luck, struggling at night”.
As his voice began to break, one of our team members bent down to give him a hug. Ross held on to Gerard for as long as he could.
As they broke apart, Ross said something that hit me hard, right in the middle of my stomach.
“That’s the first hug I’ve had in over two months”.
I wish I had taken a picture of the smile that spread across Ross’ face after Gerard’s embrace. It meant the world to him.
“It means so much to me when people don’t see me as an animal or scum on the street - I’m none of those things. I’m just down on my luck. For Gerard to do that and treat me as just a person who needs love means so much.”
The power of human interaction is something many of us take for granted everyday. Imagine feeling as though you’re too dirty for another human to even sit down beside you, take your hand, or even give you a hug?
As human beings, we’re made to be relational. Like a healing balm over a wound, the human touch is so simple, yet incredibly powerful.
In the words of Mother Teresa, “People have forgotten how powerful the human touch is – what it is to smile, for somebody to smile back, for someone to wish you well. The terrible thing is to be unwanted”.
Of course, there’s always the resounding question from the sceptic. What about those who aren’t genuinely homeless? The ones who don’t really need my help?
We asked Ross that too.
“Of course there’s people who aren’t genuine on the streets. They’re the 10% that give the 90% a bad name. They’re the ones begging for drug money – but people presume we’re all like that. We’re not.
There’s two sides to every story – we’re not all here by choice, circumstances can conspire against you. That’s why I’m where I am now.
We’re not all bad people. I wish people would just bare that in mind when they walk past us”.
We asked if people had been generally kind to Ross whilst living on the streets. He replied with a nod, but then told us that some people have been cruel. The story he told us next shook us to our core.
“I asked a man once if he had any change for the homeless, and he stopped and opened his wallet. There was a stack of notes in his wallet that was easy to see.
He leafed through it and gave me £20, but I refused it. It was too much – all I wanted was just a bit loose change for food.
But he kept insisting I take it – telling me if I didn’t he was going to rip it up. So I reached out for it, and as soon as I did, he moved his hand back and put it back in his wallet. He spat in my face and walked away laughing.
I cried for a first time in a long time after that”
Gerard gave Ross another hug.
This time Ross held on even longer.
As we left him, I was reminded that there are people on our streets crying out for love. Not money, not alcohol, not drugs, love.
Social interaction. Human touch. Time.
Bringing hope to our streets doesn’t start with reaching our hands into our wallets, it starts when we simply reach our hands out to theirs.
We gave Ross three hugs each before we said our final goodbyes. I wish I had taken a photo of his face in that moment too.
Our challenge to you? Sit down beside someone living on the streets, ask them about their day, or even offer them a hug. You never know, it could be the first one they’ve had in a while.