Identity, for most of us in the UK, is something we rarely think about unless we are unlucky enough to be the victim of identity fraud. But on a very personal level, who controls our identity? How much do we construct ourselves and how much is thrust upon us. Like the characters in the game of Happy Families above, how much of our identity is formed due to the family we are connected to, the position our spouse or partner holds, or our role within the community?
When these things fall away the loss of identity is often a source of real pain for those who are homeless and something over which they have little control. Often people strive hard to find a way to differentiate themselves from other people dealing with homelessness such as the man I have spoken with here. We discussed together publishing parts of our conversation and he is happy to have it included, hopefully to shed a little light on one individual, his thoughts on identity and how he interacts with the people he meets as a result. This is only a portion of his words as, being of Irish Romani origin as he himself described his background, there was not the space on my recording device to hold all the words he had to share with me!
Most of the general public never get to see the other side of the homeless person. They only get to see the person sitting in the doorway with the blanket wrapped around them looking down. But people go past me though and they see me with my two mobile phones, going back and forward and they think ‘he’s got too much to do’, but I listen to music, I’ve got over 3000 tunes and still adding to it,so I’m just going to Costa and people think I’m just a backpacker that’s left his job or something,you know what I mean.
I like to study psychology. I’m trying to do a case study at the moment, basically I just sit in Costa and watch people trying to work out why people do the things they do. That fascinates me. Sometimes it’s easy to work out but other times it’s hard, you can give 10 people identical tasks to do and they will all do them differently because of their history, because of their upbringing, it all influences all of us. Most people are living in the moment, they do not stop to think why they do a particular thing in a particular way, to reflect on it but I do. Most people live life through negative emotions, not positive ones, I see people when I get up in the morning in my sleeping bag and their faces are so negative, and I say why not smile, it’s a choice, why not?
You ain’t got none. When you’re on the streets you basically don’t have one, the only time we’re ever given an identity as an actual human being is when someone comes over and talks to us, but you will get people that will see you and purposely cross over the road, walk away, cross back over, I have seen people giggling just because I’m in the doorway, I look at them and I’m laughing – I’m thinking you’re more screwed up than me, I’m more streetwise than you and ultimately I’ve got more to live for than you have cause you’re only one pay cheque or maybe two pay cheques away from being exactly where I am and you may not survive. But I know how to survive and I’ve got more than you’ll ever have in a lifetime. They see one person drinking or taking drugs on the street and they label every single homeless person with that and that’s diabolical.
I grew up just over the border in Ireland as a Romani Gypsy, Catholic as well but I changed my faith to Buddhism because of my background. I hated everyone that wasn’t from my area when I was young, the English, anyone that was outside my bubble, I hated them but as time went on and I had to start fending for myself, I ran away and then I turned round and said to myself – we are all human beings, we all breathe the same air, we all need the same air to survive even though you can’t see it and something clicked in me and I picked up my first book. The first book I ever picked up was by Carl Rogers on psychotherapy and it got to the case studies between client and therapist about what it means to be a human being and what does that mean to you as an individual and I began searching and I’ve been searching ever since. And why we are so quick to judge the other person when they don’t look like we look, they don’t do what we do. Why?
That’s what I found about being homeless, they look at a homeless person, they stare at them up and down and think ‘Well he’s a junkie, he’s an alcoholic and him, well, I’m not so sure about him (that makes them nervous and wary). I get by myself because I look so clean, I keep clean, and have a shave and a shower (in the drop in) and I’m sitting there with my headphones on blanking everyone, but if someone comes up and talks to me I’ll give them the acknowledgement but otherwise I generally won’t say hello because I know that if I say hello to anyone walking past the first thing they’ll think is ‘What does he want? Because we are homeless, they all think that we want something, I don’t want no money from them, if they want to give me money that’s up to them, that’s their own decision, I’ll take it, I’d be stupid not to, but preferably I’d much rather just have a conversation. I just want to talk to them to see what’s going on in their lives to see how they are doing, to make them laugh.i just want people to have a good time.
I have been set on fire twice, I have been stabbed once, I have had bottles thrown at me by teenage kids (that’s an occupational hazard that one), I’ve been urinated on, I’ve nearly been shat on – by the general public, just because I’ve been sleeping in a doorway. They’ll do it while I’m asleep, they won’t dare do it while I’m awake but as soon as I talk to them, as soon as I get to know the person (and I can do that quite quickly) it’s different. After studying psychology and psychotherapy I make it my business to say hello to people now and then, to try and use the right tone of voice to draw them over, and it usually works.
At this point he told us about the man he met last night and had a conversation with, who invited him back to his home and who he played PlayStation with for a few hours, drank some beer together, and slept on the floor. This is one of many encounters with strangers who have taken the time to talk. In some ways I wonder who really has lost their identity. This man may have no possessions to speak of but I daresay is known simply by his nickname in many, many towns across the country to many people. In contrast many elderly people sit isolated in their homes, their names known to relatively few. It appears that in some sense, the power to bestow identity on, or foster a sense of self in, others, rests with all of us.