Friday, 26 October 2012

The death of Horace and the two faces of Barnet

The press has been overflowing with tributes to Horace, the Finchley Street legend. A shrine has been set up and now the council are debating whether or not we should have a bench placed in memory of him. I'm all for a bench in memory of such a character, but I can no longer stomach the crass hypocrisy and double standards with which our society treated Horace and goes on treating other people in his circumstances.
Did the Council ever buy Horace a bench when he was alive? Did the council ever debate how vital a part of the North Finchley Street scene he was? Sadly no. Now he's dead and gone, all of a sudden they have found a social conscience. I didn't know Horace. I'd seen him around, but can't remember if I ever exchanged a single word. As I'm not a North Finchley local, I have only the vaguest recollections of him, from a few brief passing encounters. I had seen teenagers taunt him and so he got cross. I saw people turn the other way as they approached him, scared to make eye contact. Like many people who are part of the street scene, I didn't see much love or respect for him whilst he was alive. I am sure that plenty of people did make the time for him and he had many friends, but I am sorry to say that the impression I get is that for many the friendship started on the day he shuffled off from this mortal coil.

I talk to hundreds of homeless people, who live their lives on the streets every day. On a Thursday I volunteer at a homeless day centre and I make toast for anywhere between 70 and 130 homeless people every week. I try and talk to each one as best I can in the 30 seconds it takes me to prepare their toast.

Living on the street is a hard and unforgiving life. For many (unlike Horace who had family and a bed to go home to) there is no one. The average age of death of a homeless person is 48. I've heard tales of people being spat at, kicked, beaten, urinated on, taunted and abused. People tell me of small kindesses they receive and the odd story of human goodness. Sadly these are not the norm.

I have no idea what problems or issues Horace had (If any). I've no idea whether he received all the help he needed from social services. I've no idea whether, he may have lived beyond 54 if appropriate services were available to him, or whether he'd have taken these offers up.

What I do know is that we are a two faced society. We slash budgets to help people who need it, whilst seeking to placate our own guilt and grief, for those who often we never gave the time of day to.

If we really want to make a lasting memorial to Horace, we need more than a bench. We need to change our attitudes to all of the people who need help and we ignore on a daily basis.

Back in January I made a New Years Resolution and I have kept it so far. My resolution was that I would spend three hours a week working at a homeless day centre, giving something back to the people at the bottom of the pile in society. Every piece of toast I butter is a memorial to Horace and every other person who I have avoided eye contact with, crossed the road to avoid, kept my change in my pocket and generally pretended doesn't exist in my life.

I am trying to care more. Are you?

No comments: