Two weeks ago local fame came unexpectedly to an Eastbourne homeless guy after I posted a picture of him on Facebook which went viral. I was strolling along the seafront on Valentine’s Day, killing time before my weekly writers’ group. I looked up and saw Steve smiling at me as he sat on his bench, surrounded by red balloons and his worldly possessions. We both started laughing and a connection was made. His smile and the love and support for him that resulted from that Facebook post were, for me the best Valentine’s present.
I went on holiday the following day but as soon as I returned I was eager to visit Steve’s bench to see how he’d been getting on. He has been overwhelmed by such amazing support from the people of Eastbourne. When he saw it on Eastbourne Facebook page he was initially a bit worried. He thought it would lead to lots of negative, hurtful comments. But within hours there were pages of wonderful comments and offers of help and support. They weren’t just empty words. People came down to the seafront to visit his bench, bringing him food and hot drinks and useful gifts. ‘What can I do to help?’ Was the most asked question on the thread. But the most incredible thing of all is that people have been writing to Steve, at his bench. He showed me several letters, delivered by the postman and one brought a tear to my eye, from a young boy enclosing £5 of his pocket money.
The weather on the south coast was dreadful today and I can’t begin to imagine how homeless people like Steve cope. It was a gothic sort of day, grey with a howling wind and driving rain. Dramatic waves crashed to shore. As I chatted to Steve all I could think of, selfishly was how cold I was. My legs were getting wet, my glasses were spattered with water, rain was dripping from my hat into my collar. But Steve smiled and said, “You get used to get. Immune almost. I love the storms. They give me energy. What choice do I have?” When he leaves his bench and goes into somewhere warm he said the change in temperature isn’t always good for the body because he’s become acclimatised to the cold, but the warmth does makes him feel human again.
Part of the whole experience of being homeless, Steve says, is that “people come and go.” I hope the support doesn’t go. I really want Steve’s life to change. He’s positive, he doesn’t blame any misfortune and he hasn’t turned to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain. He has turned to God though and puts his faith in God, but as Steve said, looking up at the clouds, “he’s really testing me.” But “when God lays his hands on you, you have no choice, you’re in his hands.” And I guess whether you believe in God or not that’s true. None of us know what our destiny is. But many of us are just two pay cheques away from being homeless. It could happen to any of us. If we do nothing, then nothing will change. People like Steve are trying to change their situation. Like so many homeless people Steve grew up in the care system. When he left care there was no support. I don’t know what things are like today when children transition from care into the world but there must be thousands of homeless people up and down the country who are victims of this system. It’s time the government faced up to the failings of our Social Service system. They are responsible for these people and their plight.
There’s often a lot of negativity surrounding what we often refer to as the ‘evil’ of social media but in this connected world of ours, it can also be a good thing. Let’s continue to use Facebook to drive change. Steve told me there are lots of basic things that councils could do and relatively cheaply. The homeless need a locker, somewhere in the town to keep their belongings. They need somewhere to shower. And a meal. Above all they need to be safe. But the greatest danger is other homeless people who might steal or hurt them. Every minute of every day they have to have their wits about them, never properly sleeping, waking if someone approaches, always fearful of the worst things that can happen by living on the streets – somebody setting them on fire while they sleep or peeing on them.
We mustn’t forget the compassion we’ve all shown these past two weeks and use this to do what we can to end homelessness. Write to your MP or your local council and stop to chat to the homeless. They are real people!!
Thank you for reading!