Tuesday, 10 September 2013
Gentlemen of the Road
I have been brought to reflect upon my experience of vagrants by a recent post from Fr Ray Blake. As a child I was taught to call the vagrant a ‘gentleman of the road’, and I have encountered such gentlemen (and ladies) in every stage of my life.
As a young boy I would see my father bring ‘gentlemen of the road’ home to share his Sunday lunch, which taught me to see these men as people just like us. While studying in London (25 years ago) I went regularly on Saturday nights to the Embankment with a group of fellow students to distribute food and blankets to the homeless, spending a few hours in their company chatting with them. In fourth year of seminary I spent one day a week working in a drop-in centre for the homeless, while today when men of the road call at the presbytery, I give them food and stay to converse with them as they eat so as to give respect as well as practical help. I cannot, however, give them money, because our parish is a former pit village and not well off.
My experience of gentlemen of the road has been very varied. One family on the Embankment told me they had been on the streets for 15 years; though they had been given a local authority flat some years before they could not handle the tresses of everyday life and so had returned voluntarily to life on the streets. I recall a man knocking at the presbytery door asking for money to buy a bus ticket so he could get to his dying mother at the other end of the country; the priest with whom I was then working took him to buy the ticket but on passing by the station an hour later found the guy trying to sell it! Then there was the gent who asked for money to buy petrol so he could drive to see his dying mother; when I offered to follow him to the local petrol station and pay for it by card he very angrily refused and stormed off.
Are all the disadvantaged the same? No. I had the experience of meeting a man at the Embankment who claimed to have spent time in the States and to have been an extra in Hollywood. We were taking this with a pinch of salt until he produced a photograph of himself with Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in the background. That incident taught me not to reject out of hand the tall tales we priests are sometimes told, such as the guy on Kings Cross Station who had been an architect but lost his wife and child in a road accident which he alone survived; a man whose guilt, depression and escape into alcohol caused him to lose his work and his home.
My experience then is that there are those who have deliberately chosen life on the streets because they cannot cope with normal, every-day life, and those who are there through tragic situations and as a result of addictions. We need to be prudent in how we respond to the needs of the homeless and the poor, and I think giving money to institutions with a ministry to the poor is the wisest move; giving money rather than a meal to the individual vagrant may be little more than a quieting of the conscience -and may turn out to be financial support of a self-harming addiction. Still, not to make some kind of material response is not an option for a Catholic or any person of goodwill since we are going to be judged on how well we have lived out the charity of God (Matthew 25), but we have to remember that above all, we who form the Church are not here to eradicate poverty or injustice; we are here to save souls: teaching and sanctifying are our principle mission.