A little while ago I saw a campaign that really made me re-evaluate the way I treat homeless people. I have always been empathetic to the homeless and always wanted to be able to help them in some way, however, I used to look away as I would walk past because I felt guilty. I would never smile at them because I worried that they would think that I was smirking at their misfortune.
My eyes were opened by the ‘Make Them Visible’ campaign, which made me realise how psychologically and emotionally damaging it must be to be ignored every day. To be invisible to people as they walk past you, to feel as though you don’t exist, or that you are not worthy of acknowledgement. After I found out about this campaign, I decided to smile at the homeless man that I walked past every day; he smiled back at me and told me to “keep smiling”. That was Chester.
Chester is a self-proclaimed rapper, poet, dog lover and Sagittarian, he is also homeless. A series of unfortunate events, starting with an abusive father and culminating with inhospitable hostels, led him to a doorway on Oxford Street. He is well known by sight in the Tottenham Court Road area; partially for always being accompanied by a plethora of miscellaneous objects which he takes everywhere with him and, of course, by Buster, his sweet and gentle pit bull. But mostly because, despite his situation, he never ceases to smile as he says “Good Morning” to the commuters who walk past every day.
We sat down together in the doorway which he had made his own with blankets and bits and bobs, and we chatted for about an hour. I learned a lot about him and I decided that though, it is not within my power to change his situation, maybe one way I could help him would be to give him a voice and, hopefully, help others to re-evaluate the way they treat the homeless. Here is some of what I learnt about Chester; that that he has been on television 3 times, namely on the BBC, that he has little love for organisations like Crisis and St Mungo’s, that he has a child who was taken away from him to Australia and that he has been rapping for 35 years. He even gave me a private show:
Chester came to mesmerise, open your ears and realise,
Lyrical words of wisdom coming from the wise,
Blink and you will recognise,
Physical stars or mars or material?
To exercise my fashion that is spiritual,
Not technical but reasonable,
Lyrics that are sensible . . .
And that was only part of the first verse (which I have attempted to capture the best of my ability!)
In the hour that we chatted, I was careful not to push Chester to talk about anything too personal, but he opened up naturally. “It makes me happy when people talk to me,” he insisted as I apologised for disturbing him. But not many people do stop to talk to him – our penchant to sit and chat with our friends, or family or colleagues about our lives and our problems is a luxury which we very rarely realise we enjoy.
People tend to avert their eyes when he smiles at them or says “Good Morning”, he told me. They don’t want to be asked for change but he insisted that he doesn’t want money or food . . . all he wants is acknowledgement. Some people refuse to recognise his existence, even with a nod of the head, or a smile.I asked him if this upset him and he responded by saying “I’m not a T-Rex or a King Kong, I’m approachable . . . I do cry” and he then went on to tell me about the truth of the well-known saying that loneliness is not when you’re on your own but when you’re surrounded by people and you feel alone. An all too harsh reality for Chester who, sitting on Oxford Street, is passed by hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day, few of whom stop to talk to him.
However, he explained to me that he finds a sense of self-preservation from those who are determined to ignore him. “Someone can only completely ignore me if they’re deaf, blind and dumb” and what he means by this is that, through their resolute and pre-determined calculation to ignore his salutations, he continues to exist; to be. If you have ever heard the jingle ‘Washing machines live longer with Calgon’ at the end of the old Calgon ad, you’ll know that it’s catchy and it gets stuck in your head.“I am Calgon,” he said.