I am absolutely distraught. I’m standing in McDonald’s disputing with staff, my voice slightly raised in outrage and tears filling my eyes. I refuse to let these people reduce me to tears in public. But making a spectacle of myself in public is the least of my concerns, mostly because it’s too late and partly because I am fighting for a good cause.
Today is world homeless day, and as you would already know by now, that is if you know me, I am raising awareness for homelessness and I am in high hope to raise funds for winter packs for the homeless. Myself and my friend, Marcia, have decided to take action for the invisible people, the homeless. We have stocked up on thermal hats and gloves and socks, and we have taken to the streets of London to help prepare people for the cold tonight and pray for them.
Having given the little we had to give, we were feeling overjoyed at how good it feels. Even just little things like a one pound hat to someone who really needs it. After all they are human too, and the way we feel cold, even in our homes, they feel it twice as bad outside, all night.
After stopping countless times to commune with individual homeless people, we saw a group of people who were homeless away in the distance. We confirmed with one another that they were homeless, you know, as you do. Everyone stereotypes. We noticed the luggage they had with them and we noticed them shivering in thin hoodies. So we crossed over.
For me, this was a cross over into the midst of compassion central. There was one woman as about eight men. Marcia mentioned that it was a big group and that we may not be knowledgeable enough to approach such a big group. I agreed for a second but then I grabbed her arm and said, ‘God is in control’.
I called out as we walked over, “do you mind if we bother you for a second?”
“Sure,” they said.
We explained who we were, Marcia and Chaneen, we explained that we are absolute newbies to the field of charity work, but we want to get a foot in the door to help people who are on the streets. We told them about the gloves, hats and scarves and they looked at us as though we had just walked out of heaven right in front of them. We handed the thermals out and asked each of them their story. Some shared, others didn’t and that was fine. The thing is we acknowledged them as people and not just dirty faces.
The woman went first and began telling her story. She’s pregnant, with a broken leg and five recent stab wounds. She let us feel her baby kick, it was the first baby I have ever felt kick, it was a tough little thing and it was warming to us. All she had was a sleeping bag, worn out trainers and the clothes on her back, which were very thin and impractical for this weather. I told her that I was a Christian and I believed in the power of prayer and asked if it would be okay to pray for her. She said she believes in the power of prayer too and she’s happy for me too.
There was a slightly older man, he didn’t say much but he did let his request for water known, in a very polite manner, I must add. Another refused our offer for thermals, because, although they were worn, he already had a hat and gloves, and he would rather we went to offer it someone without anything at all. How very honest and noble.
We offered to go and buy them food from Sainsbury’s, but they didn’t feel as though they could ask for much. The pregnant woman asked for a pint of milk and besides that, only water was on the list. As we headed over to Sainsbury’s we saw another man sat alone by the side of a store. He wasn’t there before. We approached him and he was happy to have us as company. He was really young. We gave our introduction and offered him what we had left. We had run out of hats, so we gave him gloves and socks. He was extra please for the socks.
Marcia said to him, “Have you eaten at all today?”
“Nah, not really,” he said.
“Would you like us to get you something to eat?”
“Yeah like McDonalds or something,” she smiled.
“That would be great. Really? Thank you so much,” he beamed at her in disbelief. Could people really be so kind?
“Of course,” she said, “that’s what we are here for.”
“Oh, you’re amazing, thank you, thank you.”
“Chicken sandwich meal?”
“Anything, he said, I just don’t eat fish.”
“Okay, so chicken,” Marcia said and he nodded, “or a Big Mac,” she said and his eyes widened with joy.
“Oh yes please, thank you so much.”
It touched my heart to see how grateful these people are. He just could not understand that we were offering to buy him food. It was as though he had never heard of or experienced such things before. But then again, he is homeless in London, the city that doesn’t really see homeless people, because they’re obviously invisible, mythical creatures.
We headed into McDonald’s, for a second time. I decided milk and water was not enough for a group of people, so I ordered a box of twenty chicken nuggets and five fries, in hopes that they would be able to share, while Marcia ordered our newest friend his ‘amazing’, Big Mac meal.
As you do in McDonald’s, I had to wait on the side because my order was not yet ready. A woman was next to order; she had a really tatty bag and lots of change. At least, that was my view from the side. I suggested that she too was homeless and we should pay for her food. I went back to the till and asked her. She started to cry. She said “money is not the problem. They just won’t let me eat in here.”
“What?” I said, not understanding. Surely she had misunderstood them. Surely?
I turned to the female cashier behind the till. “I’m sorry, what? What is it that she is saying?”
The woman began to cry more as the cashier told us that she was not allowed to eat inside the store.
I looked at the woman, and she said in a loud sob, “it’s because I’m homeless!”
I looked back to the cashier behind the counter, who simply shrugged. Immediately outrage struck.
“She is human!” That cannot be a lawful rule?
“But I’m sorry”‘ she said, “there is nothing I can do.”
“Do you not have a heart” I asked her. “It is freezing cold outside.”
“No,” she said.
No? No? What kind of God forsaken response is that?
“I cannot do anything?” She repeated.
The woman beside me continued to cry. I looked into her eyes and I started to cry myself. How could they be so horrible?
“Can I speak to a manager?” I demanded.
The cashier looked around and shrugged again. All sorts crossed my mind. I was angry. I could tell she was a manager, because she wore a white shirt instead of a green one but I could no longer deal with her ignorance.
“I am” she said.
“Well let me talk to another manager.” She ignored me, “let me talk to another manager!”
She pointed, with her head to the woman right beside her, who had evidently witnessed the whole thing, because she immediately began to recall some sort of script locked away in her mind.
“I am sorry but there is nothing we can do. We cannot allow homeless people to eat in here because customers will complain; they have to do a take away. If they refuse we will have to take precautionary measures.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Precautionary measures?
“That is disgusting! You are being so heartless!” I had to check myself because I was really raising my voice.
“Listen, I worked in McDonald’s for three years. We served and catered to homeless people just as we would to anyone else, it is discrimination otherwise.” They looked at me blankly, maybe as though I was lying, why on earth would I lie about working in McDonald’s? “So I’ve just bought food, and she’s getting food. If she is to sit down with us, what’s the problem?”
“If she sits down we will have to take action to remove her.” She glared at the homeless woman and nodded as if they had had such history together.
I pleaded one last time on their behalf, it’s not as if they didn’t have it hard enough. “But she is human too.”
Both the managers shrugged in sync. Then the first cashier asked if the homeless woman still wanted to order food.
I didn’t hear a thing Marcia said for the most part. She had come up and began telling me to calm down, getting upset won’t help. I was dumbfounded, heartbroken at how people could be so heartless.
I stepped back and gave the woman a hug. I told her I was so sorry for how disgusting this all was. She thanked me for trying. I prayed I would calm down before I would have to interact with everyone again. I guess the compassion I felt got the better of me. I don’t think that it is okay to discriminate against a group of people simply because they are not like everyone else or because they are not liked by everyone else. We’ve made it pretty far with integration and tolerance, but that’s because we had people fighting for those causes. There has been no one fight as strongly in the homeless corner, we’ll I am ready for this fight.
By Chaneen Salako
For the A Homeless Winter campaign 2014