If you are ‘friends’ with me on Facebook or know me in ‘real life’ you will have heard that I am now General Manager at a charity that runs a day centre for the homeless and vulnerable in the town in which I live. It’s challenging and hard work but has its rewards. About a hundred people who have been utterly failed by society come through my doors every day, all of them have at least one of the following: alcohol addiction, drug addiction, gambling addiction, debt, insufficient financial support (even without any of these problems), mental health issues (possibly including psychosis), little or no family connection, learning difficulties, inability through illness to take on employment.
Sometimes people among my relatively wealthy, comfortable and mainly retired friends ask me variations on the same question, which is “is it worth it?” - in other words, aren’t they all a bit hopeless? why put all the effort in when they will never change?
The other day one of our clients crossed the road outside our office. The road is five-lane, three in one direction and two in the other, it’s a major arterial route out of the town centre. We could tell by the way he was walking that he’d taken too much stuff, probably heroin. And then, while I happened to be looking at him while talking to another staff member, he fell down in the middle of the road. Cars screeched to a halt, and I and the other staff member shot out of the building to get to him.
In the minute or so it took us to reach him, some of the motorists had started to help him to the side of the road. We took over at that point and got him to the little wall outside our building, we sat him down against that so he could lean on the wall. My colleague ran back in to get a phone (in the hurry we’d left our phones behind) and I waited with him. He’d torn his fingernail when he fell and blood was dripping everywhere, we know he has either Hep B or Hep C so I was dodging his blood so as not to get infected (note to self: must get my vaccination). Although he was seated and against the wall, he was still so out of it he kept flopping over to the ground, so I propped him back up again and stuck my leg out to the side for him to lean against. And I waited for the ambulance to come.
And while I was waiting, I thought it. I thought the thought. I thought “One day he’ll die like this, all I am doing now is prolonging the inevitable.”
If you have any compassion at all, it shakes you up when you find you have thought that thought about another human being.
The ambulance came and took him to hospital who helped him get through it. And the next day he was back, arguing and shouting and being disruptive the way this particular person sometimes is. But by then I had remembered that about 30% of our volunteers are clients or ex-clients (we have a fabulous client volunteering programme), and some of those used to have alcohol or drug addictions but have straightened themselves out and begun to turn their lives around. With our help, with the help of other agencies and with considerable tenacity and fortitude of their own.
And this is the point. When they are down at the very bottom of their existence, falling down in the street, unconscious through substance abuse, you cannot tell by looking at them which of them, in the future, will recover their sense of responsibility and strive to achieve independence.
You cannot tell.
And that is why I try, we try, with every single one. Why we will not give up on any of them.