Friday, 17 April 2015

The shirt off his back. A story.


This week saw Youth Homelessness Matters Day. I'm not quite sure why it registered with me this year as opposed to other years but it must be a good thing that it is coming more into the public consciousness. The story below is about homelessness and youth, though not a homeless youth as you will see.
There’s a man. He’s homeless. I see him most mornings when I walk from the train station to the bus-stop. His territory is the area around the William street shops, across the road from the Wesley church, which is also the area where I have been catching buses for many years.
This morning when I saw him he was asleep, sitting upright against the wall of the souvenir shop and, as always, seeing him reminded me of my interaction with him which was over 8 years ago, and this story which I want to tell you now.

A winter evening on William Street. It was windy in the city as it often is. I stood in the queue for the bus, as I often did and still do. There was a stirring in the crowd to the side of me and I turned around. The man was lying on the pavement outside the burger restaurant. One of the many homeless, he was dishevelled, a bit dirty. His eyes were closed and blood pooled out around his head.

People stepped away. Others, having seen what was going on, either gawped at the spreading blood or turned back and continued waiting for the bus. Then a young man stepped out of the crowd. And he was very young, maybe 19 or 20, no older than that. He knelt beside the wounded man and gently shook his shoulder to see if he was awake. I could hear him saying “Are you all right, mate?”

I went to help because my teacher-instinct kicked in. I see a situation that needs managing and if no one else wants to take charge, I’ll do it. I can’t help it. As the young guy cradled the man’s wounded head, we eased him into the recovery position. The blood continued to pour. Later I found out that head-wounds bleed a lot, but in that moment it looked very serious. As I got out my phone and called for an ambulance, the young guy took off his t-shirt and used it to stanch the blood-flow.

Three things I remember about that occasion. The first was the wordless communication between the young guy and me. We didn’t speak. We didn’t need to. There was a job to be done and we just got on with it. The second was the image of a skinny youth kneeling shirtless in the winter cold, in a pool of blood, tending to someone who was injured. The last was the odd sense that the three of us existed in a bubble of a world – the people who didn’t stop to stare kept on walking; the staff inside the burger restaurant all came and stared through the window, but none of them came out to help or offer the use of a First Aid kit which they must surely have had inside.

The ambulance came eventually. I can’t remember how long it took to get there. The paramedics took over. We stood and watched as they lifted their patient onto the stretcher and got him it into the ambulance. Reality began to hit home when one of the paramedics came over to us. He offered hand-sanitiser and then advised us to look into testing for blood-born diseases as soon as we could. He looked the young guy up and down and then produced a thermal-blanket. Then they left.

And there we were, two strangers standing in the cold street. A school teacher with a blood on her skirt hem; a young guy with a silver thermal blanket where his shirt should have been. Dazed and smelling of hand-sanitiser, we looked at each other.

“I’m Snowy,” he said, and held out his hand.

I shook his hand and gave him my name.

“You did a good thing today, Snowy,” I said.

He smiled.

“Yeah, well, better go and get myself a shirt. Can’t go on the bus like this.”

“Yes, of course.”

“See you then.”

“See you.”

And he walked off.

I think it was a couple of weeks later that I saw the homeless guy again.  He was better, though bandaged.He was asleep in one of his usual spots. As I mentioned above, he is still around to this day. His situation hasn’t changed.
When I see him though, I think about Snowy. Just an ordinary young guy but one who I remember as noble and compassionate in the midst of the indifference crowd. Someone who would literally give the shirt off his back to help a fellow human.


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