This article isn’t so much about studying abroad as it is about something I have noticed during my time in England that I hadn’t thought about in my previous years at Fargo.
A few weeks ago, I was thinking quite a lot on what it meant to be home, and now I have found myself swinging in the other direction. Perhaps it is the harsh winters in Fargo, or maybe I just spent too much of my time on 13th Avenue and the other main drags, but I rarely, if ever, saw any homeless people.
Never being confronted with homelessness in Fargo meant I never really gave being homeless much of a thought – but that has changed here. When walking down the street, the easiest thing to do is lock your eyes straight ahead and keep moving, but occasionally you hear some whispered words:
“Could you spare some change, please?” Maybe I’m a sucker, but I can’t keep walking.
The other day I walked into a little shop that declared “The Beautiful Planet Café” in bright orange letters, with a happy-looking Earth painted on the sign. I bought a cheap cup of coffee from the man behind the counter when I noticed a sign saying the café was entirely volunteer run. I asked the barista, Tim, as his name tag read, why he was volunteering, and in the ensuing conversation, I found out he was homeless.
Tim told me his story, how he lost his wife, his spiral into and out of depression and alcoholism, the loss of his job, his time on the streets. He told me he was living on a kind man’s couch now, and he was volunteering to build his credibility to eventually make his way back into an actual job.
It is easy, perhaps, to walk past a person and place them in a box labeled “homeless,” with all of the assumptions that go along with the word. But this doesn’t change the fact that just as the world is a wide and varied, so to there are wide and varied reasons for being homeless. Some are homeless because of mental illness, others due to personal tragedy and some (depending on where they are) are born to the streets.
It’s difficult to get past the collective, but the reality is each person you see on the street is an individual, and is relatively similar to you.
But what can we do to help? Volunteer, perhaps. Or donate to a charity or organization that works to reintegrate the homeless. Or maybe stop and talk to them for a little while. Tim told me about how easy it was for people to ignore him or mistrust him, and how hardly anyone spoke to him; maybe we can change that a little bit.
After speaking with one homeless man a few days ago, he told me I was the first person to smile at him all day. The moment was bittersweet. During one of my first weeks here, a man in Liverpool walked up to me. “I know you might not believe me,” he said, “but I’d really appreciate if you could spare some money for a cup of coffee. That’s all I want it for, honest.” I gave him the few pounds in my pocket, and saw him walk away. A little while later, walking down the same street, I saw him sitting next to a woman in a sleeping bag, sharing two cups of coffee. I had another bittersweet moment. Maybe a single cup of coffee doesn’t make any difference. But I hope it does. And sometimes a little kindness goes a long ways.
Rio Bergh is a NDSU student studying abroad in Europe. In his A Bison Abroad column, Rio gives his first hand account of what it is like living in Europe as a student from Fargo. His column is published every Thursday.