Oxford ranks #2 for homelessness in England, right behind London. I don't know why the phenomenon, but it exists. The homeless can be found on many of Oxford's few but busy streets.
Begging in England is against the law. So is giving money to beggars. To counteract this problem and provide a means for the homeless to provide for themselves without begging, the UK government (or some entity) publishes a magazine, "The Big Issue" for the homeless to sell. They may purchase this for a pound, and sell it for whatever they can. Usually it is 2 or 3 pounds. I have tried to buy one at least once a week. I have taken to buying one and allowing them to keep the magazine instead. I think this is a wonderful programme, akin to selling of "Street Cents" in DC, which I also buy on occasion from the homeless (although I am pretty sure that is privately run). It encourages more self-confidence and kindness, for those that pass by may become future customers. And they are not begging.
I was touched the other week in Church when the Relief Society (the women's organization in the Church) President shared a Christmas tradition of a few families in the ward meeting each Monday night to deliver food to the homeless, and I volunteered to join. I did so this Monday night.
This may be the best thing I have done all term. Instead of ignoring the homeless as I too often do, we proactively looked for them so we could shower hot chocolate, soup, chocolate bars, sandwiches, and a little TLC. If they had no place to go for the night, we had shelter vouchers for them. Without exception, each was exceptionally grateful for our gifts. I, in turned, learned much about this new world. One had volunteered that day, and it said it had put him in good spirits. He was also reading a book he recommended (is it only in Oxford that the homeless read?) to us. Another was a bricklayer out of work who had a cell phone but not the heart to tell his kids his plight. And they were picky eaters, preferring hot chocolate over soup or vegetarian soup over meat (what!?). Also without exception, when offered multiple chocolate bars (my job), they would make some indication that they didn't want to be greedy and just take one unless offered more. I wonder if the "English sensibility" had pervaded even their psyches. And why not?
My favorite encounter was with a young, 22 year old single mother I will call Mary. She was sitting out in the rain just a few feet from scaffolding that would provide a bit of shelter, without a hat or gloves. She looked vaguely groomed, with earings, mascare, and parted hair. I had occasion to talk more privately with her, and she told me her story. If it can be believed, her parents were killed in a car accident in Scotland two years ago. She thereafter had a nervous breakdown and lost her son to social services. I don't know the story from there, but she hadn't thought to call her aunt in Scotland whom her parents were visiting to tell them her plight. She couldn't get into the shelter because it only allowed 25+. Although her circumstances were gloomy, she showed genuine interest in my programme here, asking why I liked studying history and questions about my husband. I had been shopping a bit in Christmas stalls around the Oxford castle just an hour before, and had purchased an impractical, whimsical hat with long bobbles coming off the top and ear covers that tied underneath. It was multi-colored, hand made, and extremely warm. It occurred to me that she could use it (I have many hats), and pulled it out of my purse and offered it to her. The smile that spread over her face lit up the darkness under the scaffolding to which cover we had moved her. She exclaimed she'd always wanted a hat just like that, and gave me a great big hug.
I had been miserably cold and wet that night until I met Mary, but somehow, after that, I could not feel the cold anymore. I look forward to my next visit with Mary.