A few weeks after returning home from 11 years in prison I was standing outside Kings Cross train station eating a sandwich when I was approached by a homeless man.
“Excuse me, mate, can you spare me something?”
He was of average height with an unshaven face and brown hair. He was wearing dirty white sports shoes and jeans. There were black greasy marks on the jeans.
“Let me finish my sandwich and I will give you something,” I replied to him. Then I asked him his name.
“Jason,” he said. I asked him how old he was and how long he had been homeless.
“I’m 32 now and I’ve been homeless since I was 12,” Jason answered.
“What’s the hardest part about being homeless, Jason?” I asked him.
“This,” he replied. “Going up to strangers and begging. I hate it, every time I do it. I wish I never had to do it.”
It seemed that my question touched a raw nerve in Jason so he then said to me,
“Listen, I don’t want to worry you with my problems as I’m sure you’ve got enough problems of your own.”
I smiled and calmly said to him, “Well, I just came home after spending 11 years in prison.”
Jason’s eyes nearly popped out of his head in astonishment.
“Wow!” he exclaimed. “And now you’re wondering what this scumbag is doing talking to me?”
I looked Jason in the eye. “Actually, I don’t think you’re a scumbag. If I thought you were a scumbag I wouldn’t be talking to you. After spending 11 years in prison I realise that everyone has a story.”
By then I had finished my sandwich so I took out my wallet and gave Jason some money, not much but enough to buy a basic meal.
“Promise me you won’t buy any drugs with it,” I told him.
Normally I never give money to a stranger who might spend it on alcohol or cigarettes or worse.
In this case, I did not smell alcohol on Jason’s breath so I thought that if I was to show him a little respect, it might restore his faith in humanity.
Jason was shocked. “God bless you,” he said as he looked at me, clearly taken aback.
“Let me tell you something, Jason,” I told him.
“Don’t ever live in self-pity. People who spend their lives in wallowing in self-pity get left behind by the world. You have chosen to live like this so only you can lift yourself out of this.”
Jason stared at me. Then he put his head down to look at the money. Then he lifted his head up again. “God bless you,” he said again.
“God bless you,” he said one last time as he walked off, still looking at me.
I spent 11 years in prison living with many different people from different countries, cultures, backgrounds and walks of life.
I listened to their stories, about their lives and their families. I listened to them telling me how they ended up in prison.
Some were career criminals. Prison was just an occupational hazard before they went on to commit their next crime.
A handful were innocent. People who were accused of a crime and then found guilty by a jury even though they were innocent.
And then there were the first-time offenders who messed up and lost hope.
These were the ones who went through a difficult event in their life but were unable to cope with it so they turned to alcohol, then crime, then violence, then ended up in prison.
I met one young Sikh man in prison for selling drugs. It turned out that he was from a wealthy and educated family. I asked him how he ended up in prison.
He told me that he was in his second year of university and his life was going well.
One day he broke up with his girlfriend and then his life went downhill after that. He turned to alcohol, then drugs, then crime. He lost hope.
Before I went to prison I would not stop to even look at a homeless person on the street. Today, even when I do not stop to talk, I definitely see homeless people and acknowledge their presence.
When I see a homeless man, I see someone who was perhaps once a stockbroker. A successful man with a family and children, living in a big house, driving a flash car. I see his marriage break up, then he turns to alcohol. Then gambling. Then debts.
First he loses his car, then his house. Then he sells off his watch and jewellery and expensive clothes to fuel his drinking habit. Before he knows it, he is homeless.
But it doesn’t change who he is inside.
We are all quick to judge people. Until we learn their stories. Or possible explanations for why they are the way they are.
That is when we realise that this person is a human being like us. Perhaps even a human with a big heart?
It is often the people who have lost everything, who have nothing, who have the biggest hearts.
This is what I learned from this 3-minute video clip that I recently came across.
Watch it. Perhaps next time you see someone homeless on the street you might see a person. Not a scumbag.
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