Brief Encounter with a Homeless Refugee

I’m walking down a busy west end street. In front of me a few yards ahead is a man, crouched on his feet, almost in a fetal position on the steps of a church. His right hand is rubbing his head. I intend to walk past, making the conscious decision not to look again, in part out of embarrassment, it somehow feels like an invasion of his privacy – slightly voyeuristic. Where do you get privacy when your home is a busy street?

Despite myself I look up and catch a silver glint of something in his hand as I get closer. Now I can’t look away. His partly shaved head is covered in scars and the rubbing motion of his hand is creating cuts with a razor blade. I continue a few paces past him but then turnaround slightly wincing.  I tell him to stop and ask him why he’s doing this to himself, that he mustn’t. I wonder if this self-harm is a ploy (not one I’d seen before) for money. He explains that the wounds on his head hurt, that they aren’t cuts from the razor blade but caused by a painful condition he has and that the only way to ease the pain is to cut the scars which cause him to bleed. I wince again. Now there’s no way out for me and I’m conscious that my evening plans are being interrupted.

He explains that during the day he mostly stays in the church and that the priest has been kind to him, and that in the evening when the church closes, he usually goes to the local YMCA. He seems articulate, clear and calm given the state I’ve found him in. He doesn’t ask but I’m relieved to be able to offer him money and potentially avoid a bigger intervention. I check my wallet but it’s empty and so I withdraw £50 from a local cash point. This is more than I originally intended to give but I hand it to him.  He’s genuinely appreciative and explains what he needs are clothes, and if I have any that I don’t need at home that I can drop them off at the church and the priest will get them to him. (I’m slightly freaked out by this because I had recently stuffed 3 bin liners with old clothes, in good condition, and ready for the charity shop).

He says all of this with sincerity and seems embarrassed to be in this position. He tells me that he is a refugee and that in the country he comes from he is a teacher – I totally believe him – and that he is currently going through an immigration process with a lawyer which has been slow and arduous. I don’t know why (perhaps it’s because he’s a middle-class black man like me – only one who is displaced) but I take out my business card and give it to him. I tell him if I can be of help to call me and in the moment, I mean it. He says he will – but doesn’t.