Another night, another adventure. I emerge from Charing Cross underground weighed down with a rucksack filled with women's hats, gloves and underwear and three jumbo bags stuffed to the brim with kindly donated winter clothing, rucksacks and precious sleeping bags. I meet up with Odette and five other lady helpers to distribute stuff to the homeless around Charing Cross and Covent Garden.
The first person we meet is Dean, a soiled and forlorn-looking 19 year old slumped outside a shopping mall. His responses are slow and he has a speech impediment which makes communication difficult. He's glad for the box of juice, the socks and fingerless gloves and the extra sleeping bag that he insists is for his younger sister who is about to return. We walk away but feel uneasy about leaving him alone, he's clearly vulnerable. We're not the only ones concerned, as he's now being befriended by a dreadlocked guy who stoops to talk to him. Our group huddle and discuss phoning a charitable agency that might take him off the streets and give him a bed for the night. When I walk back and suggest this Dean becomes wide-eyed and distressed, adamant he is not going anywhere where he'd be separated from his sister. Another homeless teen in a body-warmer strolls over to see what is going on. He's looking out for his 'friend' but is satisfied that we're helping and not pressurising Dean in any way. We offer him, socks and gloves and he's very impressed with the woolly fashionable Nike hat. He confides that he keeps hearing Dean talk about this 'sister' but he has never seen her.
Next, it is the homeless man with the dog. Dog-loving Mari dashes across the road to Sainsbury's to buy dog food and when she returns we hang around a while for her to pet the dog whilst some of us nip into MacDonald's Ladies and others of us mind the sleeping bag of another rough sleeper as he too takes the opportunity to use the fast-food loos. A few paces along we stop at a young couple from Glasgow sharing a sleeping bag draped over their knees. They came to London to try their luck but don't seem to be having any. As we hand them a large sleeping bag, black woolly tights, a lovely soft red scarf, and a new rucksack filled with women's underwear, the dyed blond young lady bursts into tears, apologises for being emotional, and blames it on her 'time of the month.' Meanwhile, the middle aged man who has strolled up to us for some socks can't believe his good fortune when we offer him a sleeping bag too - he was going to face a night on the streets with just a corduroy jacket to keep him warm. We have made his night and day!
The vegan Buddhist dreadlocked guy strolls along with us and tells us about his experiences as a street artist in Paris and Amsterdam as well as a sad tale of how his young friend contracted bronchitis whilst living on the streets and recently died. As we turn in the direction of Covent Garden, we approach two familiar faces - Alison the silver-haired artist, still sitting in her usual doorway, brings out the £3 sketchbook she bought from Rymans and shows us her sketches; Sean, sitting on his usual steps, accepts new boxers and socks, declines the thick jumper on the grounds that its too big and he wouldn't want to deprive someone else, and excitedly tells us that the jeans we'd given him last time have become his favourite pair!
We hand out our supplies to isolated rough sleepers and avoid the large shadowy crowds of homeless on the Charing Cross Road where we were surrounded and overwhelmed the last time. Some we approach are needy and grateful, others pick through our offerings and sniff and turn their noses up at unfashionable fleeces or the wrong colour scarves. We encounter a drunk male shivering in a huddle on the steps of a hostel. He's curiously well dressed, barely covered by a thin crocheted blanket, and his spectacles sit on top of a Boots plastic bag beside him. By now all I have left are mainly a few ladies underwear and some thick socks. I think of Dean's probably fictitious younger sister and wish I hadn't left the sleeping bag with him. I tell the drunk that I have a woman's hooded Parker that might keep him warm. He nods that this is a good idea. Grace helps me to put it on him and in the process we all lose our balance and our man tumbles halfway down the steps. Finally, we zip him up, put up the hood and tuck him beneath the blanket with his glasses and he expresses inebriated gratitude.
One of the most heartbreaking experiences of the night is when I approach a young black woman sitting in a corner doorway on a big plastic bag filled with her worldly possessions. She looks the other way as I approach with offers of help and quickly says she's OK. As I rejoin the group I'm a little perplexed by her rebuff. Then I realise, her automatic response, rather than rejection, is a deep expression of pain and pride - the shame of another black woman witnessing her predicament is just too much.
I wish I could have told her that she is every bit a member of my family, no more and no less than my disparate group of ladies who came together to form an instant family for the night. We saw countless examples on the street of how family breakdown can lead to abandonment, despair and isolation. We also saw people - from the caring dreadlocked artist, to Dean's concerned young mate, to the rough sleeper who gently encouraged his shy friend to accept the rucksack and socks on offer - who know that the true meaning of Family was never meant to be nuclear, but that it extends to every single member of the human race. Separation is an illusion. Our true nature is Oneness. If we each remembered this there would be no such thing as homelessness."