If you go out into the woods today (in Hamburg), you may come across what appears to be Hansel and Gretel’s house, as well as some other rather weird and wonderful characters. One of the most interesting things I find about travelling is seeing familiar political or cultural themes in a foreign context, and being able to compare them. It’s easy to forget that similar issues arise in countries with different languages or cultures. Having lived in London for nearly three years, I’m well aware that homelessness is a regular sight in cities. The public hold mixed feelings towards people living on the streets: some express sympathy for what they regard as an unfortunate state, happily giving money and volunteering in shelters; others are quick to label them as crooks and druggies, undeserving of pity. I’ve always adopted a neutral stance towards the issue, more likely to (although yet to) volunteer in a soup kitchen and provide help of a physical form, than give money which might not go towards a worthwhile purchase. I’ll admit that there have been many times when I’ve walked past someone asking for money, knowing full well that I had some change in my purse, but reluctant to give it away, just from a first impression of the person. Bad I know. But I’m sure I’m not the only one. So what was my experience of the homeless community like in another country?
If you take a train from Hamburg’s Altona station out to the suburbs and exit at Blankenesse, you’ll find a lovely, quiet town situated next to the River Elbe, ideal for long runs complete with refreshing rain showers at regular intervals. Having abandoned my map, I found myself climbing up some steps and wandering through woodland, only to pass a fence enclosing a herd of deer. Groups of bunnies chased each other in circles around the bushes. As I perplexedly watched a peacock stroll past and wondered if I’d stumbled across the home of the Brothers Grimm, a lady crawled out from under a bush mumbling in German. After explaining that I was English, she told me to watch out for homeless men in the bushes, stating that it was a common phenomenon in Hamburg. I asked if she herself had been hiding from someone, to which she replied “Me? Oh no, I was just having a piss!” After an awkward laugh I moved on, at first quite gingerly, peeping under bushes cautiously. Then I suddenly realised how ridiculous I was being and decided that I couldn’t take the woman seriously. Why would someone come all the way to a park to steal off someone when there were hardly any people around to steal from? I discovered that the lovely area was called Hirsch Park. It’s definitely worth a visit, just watch out for batty ladies peeing in bushes…
The next day I was meeting a friend of my sister’s, who I’d ironically met a week earlier when she stayed at our home. I had a few hours to kill so headed north from Landungsbrücken and followed signs to Elb Park. Little did I realise that it’s actually a hot spot for homeless people. A large statue of Otto von Bismarck stands on a square at the top of some steps. Nobody else was in sight as I arrived and I wondered around looking at the graffiti on the stone, my shoes crunching on broken glass and cigarette butts. The sun was out and I sat on the wall, rummaging through my bag, taking things out and putting them on the side to look for my camera, purse included. Then I looked up and saw a man at the top of the steps 10 metres away, stood completely still and staring at me. I froze with the shock of his eyes being fixed on me, noting his raggedy clothes and hairy face and remembering the strange peeing lady’s comment. The man seemed to be staring at me for a lifetime, and it made me feel uneasy. So I slowly started to pack my things away. As I did so, the man sloped off to the section of wall on my left. I jumped off the wall and walked away around the other side of the statue, not looking back.
A few minutes later as I walked back down to the riverside, a sense of shame hit me. I realised that it was probably the case that I’d simply just been sat in the man’s normal place. He probably wasn’t used to seeing people hang around here and was unlikely to have caused any harm. And yet I had let a stereotype determine my behaviour. Whilst I had tried to prevent it seeming obvious that I was leaving out of fear, my actions were bound to have reinforced the stigma that he probably felt as a homeless person – someone judged and resented by society – pretty much the same way someone in London feels living in the same condition. I compared the scenario to the time in Canada when I’d been waiting at an empty bus stop and a man in his thirties on a bike had cycled over, stopping to chat. I’d happily engaged in a brief conversation with him. The key difference? He wasn’t homeless.
Too often people, especially women, are quick to assume that they are in a position of vulnerability, just because of a social label. And yet all one has to do is look at the recent outpour of sexual abuse cases in Britain to realise that actually, famous, wealthy and respected people in positions of influence are just as – if not more so because of their ability to manipulate others through their social status – capable of posing a threat to one’s welfare as someone with no money, influence and security. Evidently however, the British stereotype towards homelessness can also be seen in other prominent cities in highly economically-developed countries, creating a culture of fear and ridicule of homeless people. It would be interesting to see if such attitudes are similar in those countries with less state and public wealth, or whether the greater level of equality influences a more socially-accepting attitude towards those without a home.
Whilst finally sharing this guilty confession isn’t going to make me start giving all my cash away to every person I see sitting on the street pavements, it’s definitely going to make me be more considerate of them as human beings. We don’t know the circumstances that caused them to get into that position, so let’s not assume that they have dangerous intentions towards more fortunate others.