A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Poor in the Streets

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

It is difficult to maintain composure and credibility as a Christian when confronted by aggressive and ‘in-your-face’ beggars in the streets of Europe’s major cities. Staying 3 months in Dublin, I decided to have a plan to avoid cutting these people dead. I would acknowledge any greeting with some eye contact, and reply to requests affably with a “Not today”, and not carry cash. It was not long before my naivety was exposed.

On O’Connell Street with snow on the ground, a young Romani ‘traveller’ woman accosted me and said “I am hungry – no money”. She was visibly pregnant. I unwisely enquired “Where is the father of your baby?” She said “He run away – does not want the baby.” Of course she would say that. I produced the only cash I had, a 2-Euro coin. She took me by the sleeve and led me to a crowded supermarket nearby where I presumed she would show me something she wanted. Instead she grabbed a trolley and proceeded to load it with groceries. I panicked, slid to the back of the supermarket, found an exit and escaped, feeling silly and mean. Surely I could have seen that coming.

There were other scrapes. Most annoying were the people who lurked around ticket booths at train and Luas stations. Despite large notices reminding all that such behaviour was illegal, they would be there as you pocketed your change, sometimes in a wheelchair. However it was better to have a plan than no plan at all. I noticed that most of the older women were very polite, and blessed you even after a refusal.

In Birmingham the downtown area was full of homeless young people. I got into conversation with a young man on release from prison who was stood down from his benefit for 3 months for doing some paid gardening. He somehow had to survive till October without offending again. He did not blame anyone except himself. I was able to share my sandwiches with him.

In a big mall in Glasgow I met some young people who were active in caring for homeless youth, and they just wanted to tell me about it. It was good PR, because the next time they were fund-raising, more people would know who they are and support them. The poor are with us always, and some choose to spend all day on the street.

The poor are with us always, and some choose to spend all day on the street.

I feel it is important to treat them as God’s children especially when we are not in a position to help them.
I once had the opportunity, home in Christchurch, to do the night rounds with the late Major Bob Miller (S.A.) in his van dispensing hot soup, coffee and tea, buns and loaves of bread. I was the ‘bread man’ with a sack full of fresh loaves and handing them out the sliding windows on request. I was aware that someone else had donated this bread, but it was a great joy to pass it on. Most of the clients were sex workers and it was a very cold night. There was no trouble that night, and I do not remember any bad language, just cold hands and cheerful thanks, and Jesus’ words “you did it to me”.

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