Passing People By

I’m never sure what to say when asked for ‘a few pence’ by people on the street. Usually I say no, sometimes I give something, and only occasionally do I offer money without being asked. My emotions swing between guilt and self-satisfaction depending on how I’ve responded. But the underlying feelings are irritation for being put in that position and confusion about how to handle it.

I think to myself: Should I respond to people sitting in doorways differently from those who walk up to me? Does it matter whether people offer a reason, however unoriginal, like they have to pay for a fare home? If I knew their circumstances, should I distinguish between those who left home by choice and those forced by circumstances? Or between the mentally ill and the not, and whether mental illness led to their homelessness or is because of it? Should I take account of how they ask or what they look like or their personal hygiene? And does self-help carry any weight – are Big Issue sellers more worthy because they have to pay for a supply of magazines to sell onwards?

Some passers-by offer street people food and drink instead of cash, perhaps not trusting how they’d spend it. If I did this, should I ask what they’d like and take them with me to the shop? Given that they might be alcoholic, should I buy them the bottle of wine they crave? And who am I anyway to specify how another human should spend their money, given that my donation is their income?

Then there’s the question of what to say when I give money. Given that humanity might be all we have in common, a courteous ‘hello’ seems enough, and let the money speak for itself. But I wonder if I should offer more, get into a conversation, recognise rather than ignore someone. And if so, should I offer the same cash and conversation to others along the road or, having given to one, is it now okay to ignore the rest?

And how to say no when asked for money. ‘Sorry mate’ sounds over-friendly and a little patronising; a brisk ‘good morning’ is blatantly ignoring their request; and pretending I haven’t seen them feels cold. Should I be upset if they say something rude or sarcastic, and am I entitled to be rude back? Their blitzing of passers-by carries little personal feeling, so why should I feel bad? Can’t I be as mechanical to them as they are to me? Or if it’s usually the same person, can’t I say: ‘We discussed this yesterday, if you remember?’

But talking would in any case be awkward, I think to myself, and they might resent me for being better off or they might be drunk or violent and threaten me, particularly if they thought I was being patronising and they have a dog. In any case, do I really want to build a relationship? No – so saying nothing is perhaps the safest bet. In reality, anything I do say is trying to make me feel better, not them.

For sure, homelessness and begging is a worldwide issue, perhaps even more prevalent in other cultures. It’s been that way throughout history – except during an event like the Olympics when entire city centres are miraculously cleared of ‘undesirables’ to give visitors a good impression. Isn’t it part of nature’s pecking order? Can’t I simply accept that street people have their world and I mine, and that individually trying to change things would make no difference?

Anyway, in the absence of government interest, aren’t there charities that support homeless people? Isn’t their focussed approach better than anything I can offer? Aren’t they responsible? Oh, and if I contributed to such bodies I could deflect street approaches by saying: ‘It’s okay mate, I’ve already got a direct debit with Shelter – good eh?’

Yes – I think I see clearly now. Street people are not my problem, so I can ignore them with a clear conscience.

Except, I wonder what drove me to such self-examination …


Copyright © Paul Costello August 2016



When They Need You Most

Something had scrambled Lily’s mind.

Huddled between her mother and me in the minimalist reception at a Child Psychiatric Unit, my daughter jigged one knee like a drummer who couldn’t stop, staring ahead consumed with thoughts she couldn’t articulate.The normal parental assurances had little effect; we were three disorientated people in a strange environment.

Waiting long beyond the scheduled appointment time, we watched the steady passage of staff and young residents through what doubled as a walkway from living quarters to the in-house school – as if part of our induction was to acclimatise to this flow of troubled humanity. Soon Lily would be following the same alien routines.

This was my baptism into the world of mental health. I’d never had to confront the subject, and like those sitting by me I was scared. When had things gone wrong and why hadn’t I noticed? Was it teenage angst, or perhaps something I’d done? The loving relationship with my daughter seemed at risk and I didn’t understand why. I was faced with an intangible problem and wanted tangible information to resolve it – but this would never come.

For six months the Unit for twelve young people into which she’d admitted herself became Lily’s first home – and my second. Tentative visits to her small room, with an occasional game of pool or stroll round the local park. Meetings with care staff, consultants and parent support groups. Tip-toeing forward, stumbling backwards, never sure of the next turn, listening to expert opinion but unable fully to grasp the issues or get an unequivocal diagnosis around which to plan. Such is the nature of mental illness.

This fragile nurturing continued through Lily’s rehabilitation at home and her resumed education at a local school for young people recovering from emotional problems. We listened to whatever diagnostic information was available, no matter if it was vague and inconclusive. We came to accept that Lily had thoughts and feelings she might be unable to bring out, and that guiding her into adulthood would require greater patience and direction. We kept her safe. And we trusted that Lily would make her own contribution to this working partnership and would ultimately value the support offered.

It’s said that one in four people are affected by mental illness, from mild depression to eating disorders, psychosis to dementia. Likely as not, we either have a problem ourselves or know someone who has. But acceptance of this by the other three- quarters is rarely straightforward. Unlike a broken leg or a common cold, mental illness is not a subject everyone can get to grips with. It leaves many people uncomfortable, frightened – like talking about terminal illness. Whereas friends and neighbours may offer practical or emotional support to an amputee, or the public rallies en masse to a physical disaster like flooding, a mentally ill person doesn’t readily attract such attention. Loss of contact and limited community back-up can mean a person’s mental health problems are compounded through isolation – just when they most need a friend.

Lily was not immune. Whilst people were by and large supportive, some who would previously have asked after her with enthusiasm now did so with caution, as if they might themselves become afflicted; the subject was awkward and perhaps best avoided. Irregular silences would creep into conversation and a change of topic sought. It was somehow unsafe to send ‘get well’ messages. And through fear or ignorance, a few even joked openly about mental illness. Ironically, those who had shied away most would nod sagely and express shock at the thought of such social exclusion, failing to recognise their own behaviour or perhaps finding denial the easiest way out.

Mental health is an imprecise science and likely to develop only slowly if government and society, perhaps relieved that by its nature mental illness stays largely hidden, continue to accord it low priority. At one time I too used to avoid the subject – it didn’t affect me and I found its intangible nature inconvenient and worrying. But having tracked my daughter’s experience through a difficult time and listened to many skilled practitioners, I feel a stronger responsibility to engage with mentally ill people – without being expected to understand what’s wrong.

Though I’d not have wished illness on Lily, I’m glad that having to face up to it has at least made me think differently.

Copyright © Paul Costello April 2014

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Cuckoos Over the Weald


Bill Tipping shot for goal. Holding off a lanky Italian defender, he took two short steps and caught the round flint perfectly on his instep. On darker mornings he might have seen sparks for his effort, but not at this time of year. Game over, as the stone escaped into thick swathes of cow parsley lining the narrow lane.

          Bill loved his walk to the small country station. Nearly forty years and he had no intention of packing it up, enjoying the routine, happy in a community which thrived on familiar faces and warm welcomes. A woman driving her children to school hooted and slowed to edge past on the narrow lane; Bill glared, until he recognised her from the cul-de-sac development at the edge of Heddingly, and waved back.

A cuckoo called from one of the coppices dotting the Sussex Weald, the same bird, he thought, that led the morning chorus he’d listened to from bed earlier. Blackbirds and sparrows foraged for grubs under the high hawthorn hedges. Bill pictured their unguarded chicks as prey for cackling magpies in search of an easy meal. How he hated that sound.

His tinny pocket radio had promised another fine June day. The sun was already high and he felt overdressed in a fleece, but with fickle British weather it was best to be sure. Strapped across his chest, he carried a beige, army-style haversack. Inside were the Coach and Bus magazine, a sticky bottle of sun cream wrapped in clingfilm, and his Tupperware lunch box containing sandwiches, a banana and a chocolate bar.