I don’t think I had seen a homeless person until I was in my twenties. I must have been aware of the people walking around, sitting on park benches, but those were mostly referred to as people who were down and out, maybe just as “drunks”.
I remember the uproar when the streets of Helsinki were wiped clean of such individuals before the CSCE meetings in Helsinki and I remember reading the daily political cartoons in the paper, and there was one recurring character who represented these people.
There seems to have been quite a gap in my understanding of the world. I did read the political cartoons – although, in all honesty, the more political they were, the less I enjoyed them – but somehow I didn’t make the connection with that character, and the description of his living under the bridge and the fact that there were homeless people in the city.
Then in the mid-1990s, I was on a business trip in Vancouver, Canada, attending an environmental technology trade fair and a training program, and one night, our whole group went out for dinner.
The group leaders, two nice ladies, had found a small Vietnamese restaurant for us, so we had a nice dinner, with everything on it, and I got a chance to tell stories of my trip to Hanoi just a year earlier. A few hours later, the whole group stumbled down the stairs with two big doggie bags the group leaders had asked to take with them.
As we walked back to our waterfront hotel, we saw a homeless man sitting on the pavement. Or, the group leaders saw him, I was walking behind them, entertaining the rest of the group.
The nice ladies stopped to chat with the man, and then gave him those two huge bags of spring rolls, noodles, rice, dips, and the rest of our Vietnamese leftovers. The man was ecstatic, and he got up and gave those nice ladies big hugs.
I was so impressed by that good deed by those nice ladies in Vancouver that I promised myself that I, too, would become a nice person, and if possible, as nice as those ladies in charge of my environmental technology training. One day, I, too, would help strangers like that.
Back in Finland, I promptly forgot all about it, but in my defense, it was at least in part a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. There just weren’t that many people sitting on sidewalks, and I suppose they simply stayed under the bridges where my narrow mind just couldn’t follow them. Then I moved to Stockholm, and I saw some more “street musicians” and even people sleeping on the streets, but … I guess I didn’t find a Vietnamese restaurant.
And then, a few years ago, the beggars arrived in Sweden and Finland.
One day, a few years ago, I was walking down the main street in Helsinki when I passed a man outside a coffeeshop, sitting on his knees with an empty paper cup, begging. I walk past him and around the corner, but once there, I got an idea.
I went into the coffeeshop, bought a cup of coffee, went back out, around the corner and handed the beggar that hot cup of coffee. He looked at it, but didn’t say anything, and then put it down on the pavement next to him.
There were no hugs, no high-fives, not that I wanted one, either, but it was just an awkward moment.
I stood there for a few seconds, and then continued my walk.
Last Monday, the day after the Swedish election that saw a party with its roots in fascism, and a party almost openly racist, become the third-biggest party in the country, I was, again, out walking.
The sun was shining, and I had just read an article about beggars, and begging, and how it’s not organized crime, so when I saw the lady who has her spot outside the grocery store next to Wife’s office, I stopped, and gave her six Swedish kronor, which was all the change I had.
She thanked me with a nod.
When I left Wife’s office moments later, I saw a couple walk out of the grocery store, holding hands, looking pretty. They stopped outside the store, and the man reached into their grocery bag and pulled out a baguette, which he then gave to the woman who was sitting there.
She got up with a big smile on her face, and it looked like she was going to give him a hug, but she stopped and, instead, just shook his hand.
The couple went their way, and the beggar lady sat down, next to her bread.
She was still smiling.