I know I occasionally whine (or whinge) about being homesick and I sometimes do wonder if I'll ever feel truly at home here. But regardless, I still have much to be thankful for. At least I have a proper room of my own, filled with my stuff (way too much unfortunately) and friends. At least 我不愁吃不愁穿 (I don't have to worry about food or clothes), and I generally lead a decent life.
It saddens and frustrates me though, to see people on the streets, busking or begging, with all their worldly possessions beside them (not much) and perhaps their doggy companion next to them, giving them warmth and some source of comfort when times are the worst. I was at a Cambridge Science Festival event earlier tonight when comedian Robin Ince did a gig titled Robin Ince is (in and) out of his mind. During the gig, he mentioned how dog can't be man's best friend, cos dogs not just can't speak, even if they could, their brains don't function on the same level as ours does and they can't really empathise or understand us (or something to that effect). I like dogs (as much as I like all other animals), but I'm not a huge fan of them; don't have one for a pet and have no desire to cuddle one when I do see one (sorry to all dog people out there, I mean no offence). But I do think that at least dogs don't judge. And perhaps that is why some people prefer dogs as companions to other humans. Dogs are not going to throw you dirty looks just cos you didn't shower or shave, they're not going to pretend you don't exist just because you're sitting out on the streets asking for spare change, they're not going to mock and sometimes even spit on your just because they can.
This week, perhaps because I've been straying into the centre of town more often than usual (my usual circuit is just between my room, my departments, the catholic chaplaincy and my college, all of which do not require me to go right to the centre of town), I've encountered a fair number of people either directly approaching me to ask for spare change, or basking or begging on the streets. As 'dao' (called having a 'bitchface' here, more crassly) as I have been considered to be by people sometimes, I somehow must also have that look that makes people approach me to ask for spare change. In any case, in the past week alone, I think I might have given almost £30 to various people on the streets.
I can imagine some people might disagree/be appalled at that, and I'm not sure if my parents would be all that pleased either. I used to avoid directly giving money to people (unless they were busking), and would instead get them a sandwich, but I was a Cambridge Hub event that was raising awareness on Homelessness last Sunday, and during the panel discussion (featuring two guys who used to be homeless, one of whom works at Jimmy's Night Shelter now and the other is doing his bachelor's degree, as well as a PhD researcher working on homelessness) they brought up the point about how these people already have almost no freedom as it is, and by choosing to get food for them instead of giving them money, we are further reducing the choices they can have, and in some ways de-humanising them. I'm sure people who want to can pick holes at that argument, but it is true that sometimes what they really need is money (to pay rent at a hostel or shared room somewhere) and not food (though food is always good), and in any case, I decided that I will just hope and pray that they will make the best of the money they get to try and improve their situation.
After the comedy gig, I headed to Sainsbury's to get food for the next few days, and there was this lady sitting on the streets somewhat opposite Sains. She was in tears, and asking for spare change. I gave her some, and then went to get food from Sains for her. I started chatting with her, because what hurts the most when you're on the streets, is that people just ignore you, and the boredom is, so I've been told, what makes things worse. It turns out that her benefits was stopped (because of privatisation and some changes or something like that) and that was what was paying for her hostel rent (some information on the hostel here, it's something along the lines of helping and supporting homeless/ex-homeless people, though it does not portray a pretty picture), and she needs to get £15 by tomorrow. I really didn't think I could shell out another £15 for her (that's about 1.5-2 weeks' worth of groceries for me, which covers most of my meals apart from some dinners) and so she had to suffice with the Sainsbury's Meal Deal, some change and my apologies and best wishes (she was really thankful though, she wasn't ungrateful.).
After every incidence like this, I just spend the rest of the time saddened and frustrated, and thinking way too much. If everyone could just spare some change, there are students here who are willing to shell out £100+ for a ball ticket to get smashed (drunk) and stuff themselves silly, surely it isn't that hard to just spare a bit of change, which eventually adds up. But then, people aren't all obliged to help others – if they were, then the world would be a much better place than it is now. Perhaps it's the 'right' thing to do – but what is 'right'? Is there absolute morality? Is there universal morality? I'm not sure what the Church's stance on this is, but not everyone lives by the same morals/guiding principles. And I can't deal with thinking any deeper than this, cos I'm just not that kind of an intelligent/intellectual person, so I gave up.
But you can't stop thinking, there's no way to 'shut down', as Robin Ince pointed out during his gig, so I thought instead, that is it better to give money to these people, or to some charity organisation, which will then redistribute the money to those who need it? There are all these aid campaigns, advertisements tugging on our heartstrings, telling us that this kid in Africa will die unless we text this number to give £3 or something along those lines. People don't seem to have too much of an issue in donating to charity – my parents I know, do fundraise and give quite a bit to various causes as well, usually the mission home in Cambodia/Thailand that they do some other work in as well. I mean sure, we wonder if the money we give goes to line the pockets of the charity's directors instead, but by and large I think people would still give. Of course it matters what work the charity does, that they support. And usually, it seems that if it deals with kids, their education, or women, their work/rights, then people would be more willing to support.
What about an organisation that gives the money to homeless people though? (At this late stage, I realise I should clarify that homeless =/= rough sleeper. Homeless is a rather vague and general term, but I believe it refers essentially to people who don't have a place to call home, rather than people who don't have a roof over their heads at night.) Often though, it isn't just one problem that makes people homeless, it's a multitude of issues that result in their current unfortunate circumstance. But I thought, perhaps not just outright giving them money – what about a microfinance scheme where you loan out small amounts to them for them to get themselves together, which they then pay back later on?
At which point I reached back to my room and proceeded on with life as usual - opening my laptop, a nice hot shower and a hot drink etc. I don't really think there is much that I can do to change the way things are regarding this issue. I mean, I do what I can, with soup runs with the St Vincent de Paul society, giving small change/buying the Big Issue and perhaps making some conversation when I have the time, but by and large, it's not gonna improve the way things are. I just do what is within my means to salve my own conscience. (And it is a lot easier in Singapore when you aren't faced with homeless on the streets. Doesn't mean they don't exist though, they're just hidden from view. Which is probably what everyone wants, really, for all our problems (social and environmental) to be hidden from view.)
It is rather depressing though, which is yet more reason for me to stick with science than go into social science. At least trying to understand more about the history of our earth, the evolution of vertebrates and the fossils of organisms long gone doesn't make my spiral into the depth of everything that is wrong with humanity right now. Though thinking about changes that we see and are to come in the natural world does somewhat lead down that alley.
Apologies for the essay. It did also mean that I didn't manage to cover the lectures I meant to cover for revision today. Sighs.
I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
My interests vary from conservation to education to heritage to Nature (biodiversity & wildlife) to outdoor activities to life in general.
They occupy most of my waking moment.
Do read my blogs, follow me on Twitter (@jocelynesze) and friend me on Facebook (subject to my discretion). Visit my Nature blog, Nature Rambles, at http://natureramble.wordpress.com.
UPDATE 2 Apr 2017 - This site is no longer maintained, please visit jocelynesze.wordpress.com if you're interested in more recent writing.