Reading the reflection penned by a HCS member after speaking to a suicidal homeless man, I wanted to try to help him, even if I could only offer some company. The temperature had fallen below freezing and London was bitterly cold – the thought of being exposed to the elements in this sort of weather, with nowhere to shelter, was unbearable.
Lemuel was huddled underneath the Charing Cross station underpass, along with two other men. Beaming, he appeared to be enjoying a joke with his friends, and his face lit up when I asked his name and offered some tea. The light hearted mood soon disappeared when his friend, Jerry, told me the story of how Lemuel came to live on the streets. Born in Senegal, he had lost his entire family to war. Seeking a means of escape,Lemuel found a job in a kitchen in the UK, and saved for a year to afford his travel here, only to be told that the job had now been given to someone else. With no money and no job, he had nowhere to go but the streets. As Jerry spoke, Lemuel became overcome with emotion, tears streaming down his cheeks until he had to walk off to be alone.
The struggles the men faced on the streets were varied and ongoing. Earlier that day, a drunk man had smashed a bottle at their feet, shouting racist abuse at Lemuel in front of passers by. A fight had erupted, ending in police involvement. Pointing at the CCTV camera above them, Jerry described how it made them feel safer, yet did not prevent attacks and violence from occurring. Someone had also stolen Jerry’s gloves the previous night – a minor annoyance for someone not living on the streets, but a kick in the teeth to a person trying to fend off hypothermia. As I sat beside them, Jerry described how he too had been made homeless following the loss of his job. Every possible thing had been stolen from him, including his passport, money, and debit card. A British national, he had lived and worked outside the UK for a number of years, and was classed as an expat as a result. Because of this, he was unable to receive welfare, and too old to work. If these men were cynical about life, I thought, they had every right to be.
Walking back down the Strand, I passed the grand Savoy Hotel. It seemed cruelly paradoxical that just a few metres away from those enjoying its affluence were the men I had left, who had nothing. In the same city, on the same street, their lives were worlds apart. In one of the world’s richest cities, how could we let this happen?
Despite a lingering feeling of hopelessness about not being able to help Jerry, Lemuel and John, one positive thing stuck in my mind. When I had introduced myself, I asked whether they had encountered anyone from the Hot Chocolate Society. “Yes”, replied Jerry, “And thank god for them”. Although, as a small society, we might feel powerless to really help homeless people on our own, we should remember this: the small acts of kindness we can give to those in need are not forgotten.
Written by: Helen Stanford