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    Volume 9 Issue 27| July 2, 2010|

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Straight Talk

The Man in the Doorway

Nadia Kabir Barb

I see him once or twice a week, sitting quietly hoping someone will stop and buy one of his magazines. At first like most of the people walking past him into our local supermarket I too avoided eye contact or if accidentally I happened to catch his eye, I would smile apologetically and mumble a 'no thank you' as he proffered his magazine up to me. One thing I always noticed was that he always smiled back. Then a few months ago on a very cold winter's evening I saw him huddled at the doorway trying to keep warm, rubbing his hands together and pulling his coat tighter around him. My own frustration at having to come out in the freezing cold to pick up some groceries and walk home suddenly seemed petty. I stopped and rummaged around in my bag to find some change and held my hands out with a couple of pounds in them. The look of gratitude in his eyes made me feel even more ashamed and I took the magazine from him and thanked him as I trudged back home. At least I had the luxury of going back to my home, with my bags of shopping that only a moment ago I had been moaning about and sleep in my warm bed having had a hot meal. As for the man in the doorway --- I wondered what he would eat and where he would sleep that night.

In the UK homelessness is considered to be “the condition and social category of people without a regular house or dwelling because they cannot afford or are otherwise unable to maintain regular, safe, and adequate housing, or lack, fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." Even within the same country or region the definition can vary and different countries have their own legal definition of what is thought to be homelessness.

“The term may also include people whose primary night time residence is in a homeless shelter, in an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized, or in a public or private place not designed for use as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

In Bangladesh the definition of being homeless seems rather straightforward in comparison. They are the millions of people that we see every day sleeping rough on the streets. There are no temporary shelters or institutions; they are not people who have slipped through the system. It is an image that we are constantly confronted with.

Many of these people end up trying to make ends meet by begging and despite it being something that is a regular sight, it still does not make it any less distressing. But there are also people who are on the busy streets of Dhaka walking around in the sweltering heat selling popcorn, flowers, toys, fans, dish cloths and a whole array of items to try and earn a few taka.

These days I find myself being slightly discriminatory and do not always give money to every beggar that taps on my window, just to those who seem the most needy. Maybe I have grown cynical and wonder where the money eventually ends up --- most likely in the hands of a gang run begging ring. Instead when I am in traffic jams I would far rather buy a bag or two of pop corn, take the garland of flowers a little girl waves in front of my face even if they are a bit wilted or purchase the toys that are being offered to me though they break within the first minute of use as these people are trying to earn a living and I for one am full of admiration for their initiative.

Probably in a similar way, my initial thoughts on the man in the doorway was that the money he received was most likely going to be spent on alcohol or cigarettes. However when I actually bothered to buy the magazine and read it and then find out online a little more about it I felt that I may have been a little hasty in my judgement. The magazine that I had bought was called 'The Big Issue' --- I had heard of it before and had thought that the magazine was given to homeless people to sell in order to earn some money. But what I had not realised is that the magazine is sold at £1.70 of which the vendor (the man in the doorway in this case) has to pay 85 pence to acquire the magazine and gets to keep 85 pence for himself from the proceeds of each magazine. At least he was trying to earn a living and not sitting in the doorway waiting for handouts. It occurred to me that even if he managed to sell ten or even twenty magazines a day the money he earned would not really go a long way.

If you think about it, it seems like a catch 22 situation for homeless people living in the UK. Who will give you a job if you are homeless? If you do not have a job, how can you pay for food and shelter? You find people sleeping under bridges, in doorways of shops, and in secluded alleys.

So these days when we see him, we buy his magazine, or on some occasions give him some food from the supermarket, even my children have started doing the same quite independently of me. I only realised this when I found that on numerous occasions when I sent them to the shops, the change I got back from them did not tally with the amount on the receipt. When I questioned them on this, they told me that the rest of the money was being given to the old man in front of the supermarket in exchange for his magazine.

As my younger daughter rightly pointed out, I cannot keep referring to him as 'the homeless man' or 'the man in the doorway' so next time I see him I need to find out his name...


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