How a teenage daughter on the streets of London changed how I felt about kindness

I’m writing a book at the minute. A book about how I’m trying to be a kinder person. I want to share with you a story. It’s a true story about a dad and a teenage daughter and how one day in the early summer they tried to do something a little kind.

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It was late June and it had been a week of fantastic sunshine. However after a few days of lovely weather mid week the weekend had arrived and the sky was looking overcast.

I woke slowly and checked my watch, it was 6:52am.

At about 7:00am Charlotte wandered into the bedroom and enthusiastically told me she was ready for our day out in London.

You see a few days before I’d persuaded Charlotte that I could really do with her help.

I’m still trying to work out how to be a good dad to a teenage daughter and have come to the conclusion that whilst I felt I had decent parenting chops when it comes to this new challenge I’m a novice again.

One of the challenges you face as the dad of a teenager is mastering the art of teenage persuasion is much like mastering Golf, or Chess, or Wild Bear taming. You think you’ve got it cracked and then suddenly on a day you don’t expect it you realise how much you’ve still got to learn…

However Charlotte, my 13 year old daughter, has a fantastically kind nature (although I am slightly biased) and so she was happy to help me on a day out in London delivering lunch packs to the homeless as part of my ongoing project to personally make a little bit more effort to both “do well and do good”.

Actually at 7:00am on this cloudy Saturday morning Charlotte was already ready. I was still in bed and nursing a slight gin based hangover.

“Are you ready yet Dad?” said Charlotte

“Yes Charlotte!” I replied “I intend to walk the streets of London wearing a t shirt and boxer shorts!”

Charlotte laughed and wandered out of the room…

After a shower, shave and a bit of breakfast we started preparing some packed lunches to take along into London. The idea we had was this…

We’d make twenty packed lunches and spend a few hours in London delivering them to individuals who were clearly living on the streets and struggling to make ends meet.

In the scheme of things it was a tiny gesture. We knew that giving away some food to a few people wasn’t going to solve any permanent problem. However both Charlotte and I wanted to try to make a few people who had unfortunately falling on tough times just a little bit easier.

All of the Daems family helped. Sophie, my youngest daughter, buttered bread for sandwiches, Cassie made the sandwiches and cut them into triangles and Charlotte and I packed each lunch.

Cassie had managed to get an 20 lunches together, including a sandwich, a packet of crisps and some chocolate chip cookies for a grand total of £20.

It made me wonder.

If any of us could,with a bit of focus, deliver a lunch to twenty homeless people for as little as a pound a lunch, why don’t more of us do more?

However I also knew that for decades I’d also been walking down streets ignoring the homeless and choosing to do nothing.

As we hopped on the tube I told Charlotte that I’d been looking into Homelessness in the UK to work out where we’d likely be able to help as much as possible…but I found it really difficult to get reliable figures.

The reality is it’s unexpectedly tough to find entirely accurate information on the number of individuals who are homeless or sleeping rough. It’s openly admitted by local authorities and charities alike that finding an accurate figure for the number of homeless people is a tough thing to do.

The ‘estimates’ used also vary dramatically from 4000 (based on Data provided by local authorities in England) up to 250,000 nationwide (based on a survey by shelter but also included people who are also in temporary accommodation and hostels).

However my research had told me that London was a particular homeless ‘Hotspot’ and the London borough of Westminster, one of our capitals wealthiest boroughs and the home of our democracy, had the greatest number of homeless individuals and rough sleepers in London.

“Where are we going Dad?” Charlotte asked

“Westminster” I replied.

When you walk out of the right exit from Westminster tube station the first thing you see is the Houses of Parliament. On this particular early summer day it looked majestic, especially as the clouds had now parted and London was bathed once again in bright sunshine.

There were hundreds of people around us. All looking up at the sight of the building which housed the oldest democracy in the world and the tower which housed Big Ben.

No one was looking down.

You see on the floor directly outside the tube station a man in a sleeping bag was laying in the shade. Eyes closed. Two plastic bags. One he was using as a pillow and the other laying by his head. Being ignored, often unintentionally, by everyone who passed.

It’s strange. For more times than I can count I’ve noticed someone homeless and walked past. There’s probably thousands more times when I’ve just not noticed another human being sitting on the street with his life in two plastic bags.

Now the reality is that all of our brains forms patterns. It focuses our attentions and efforts on the things we think about the most (it’s often called the frequency illusion or the “Baader-Meinhof” phenomenon) and it’s why if we buy a car of a certain make you’re more likely to see more of that particular make of car on the road.

You see the more I’d been thinking about those who lived on the streets, the more I’d noticed people on the streets.

Charlotte and I stood a few feet away from this guy and the crowd continued to move between us. It’s one of the things I love about London, it’s constant movement, the feeling of tangible excitement however at that point I felt frustrated…why couldn’t anyone else see this man?

“Dad” Charlotte said and it jarred my thought process.

“Sorry Charlotte…I was in a world of my own there”

“Can I give this guy a lunch?”

“Yep, of course!”

“I’m just going to leave it by his head”

“Okay…that makes sense.”

I took one of the pre prepared lunches from the backpack and handed it to Charlotte who left it resting by the head of this particular fella and made our way through the crowds down Birdcage walk towards Buckingham palace.

As we walked along the road hugging St. James’s park and noticed a couple of other homeless guys who we handed out a lunch pack to. I handed out one and Charlotte did the other. I noticed that whilst on her way back to me she had a broad smile and a skip in her step.

“What are you smiling at?” I queried.

“I don’t know” she said with a slight lowering of her head “It just felt really nice to help someone out like that”

“I completely get it” I said laughing “Kindness feels quite good doesn’t it?”

Charlotte nodded.

As we wandered past Buckingham Palace I noticed that there were two royal mail vans parked at the back.

“I wonder” I said to Charlotte pointing at the vehicles “Why the Queen has those two parked behind her house?”

“Maybe” started Charlotte “She just gets loads of post!”

“She probably does!” I said “or maybe she deliver parcels in her spare time. You know, to mix it up a bit when she gets really bored being a dignitary!”

“Maybe” Charlotte said giggling “I wonder if she’s ever delivered to our house!”

“Probably” I said laughing.

We wandered down constitution hill and for the first time I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more police on the streets of London today and a strange tangible tension in the air.

The closer we got to Hyde park the tension intensified as did the sheer volume of people on the streets.

The protesters broadly split into two camps. Some held signs which said “Say no to terrorism” and the English flag. The other camp held signs which said “Never again. No to the Nazis” and “Smash the English Defense league”

There were journalists and cameramen and more than anything else there were police. Police in riot gear. Police in vans. Police looking ready for the trouble they undoubtedly expected to occur.

We didn’t notice any particular bother. Apart from incident where one middle aged woman half way through the process of being arrested and someone who wasn’t afraid of telling the world (and the watching cameras) what she thought was happening…

“I can’t believe it” She screamed “You’re arresting me for protesting Nazis! They are the ones you should be arresting! Nazi bastards!”

It was a tragic sight. A seemingly respectable middle aged woman handcuffed and screaming in the street. Part of me felt a grudging respect for this women. She felt she was fighting for what she believed was right and I’m sure she felt it was the right thing to do.

However what the politically far right and far left both seem to miss is the futility of this sort of action. Maybe this is simplistic but I firmly believe you don’t say no to terrorism (or the Nazis) by wandering the streets with people who agree with you and fighting or threatening the ones you don’t.

You say no to any sort of extremism, not with more extremist views, but by communication. Sitting round the table and not only talking about we all have things which make us different but in reality we always have far more in common.

You see, and again I appreciate this might be a simplistic point of view, I believe that we say no to extremism not by being more extreme but by promoting and highlighting the success of liberal values. Democracy. Freedom. Generosity…

…and kindness.

We wandered down Grosvenor place on the way to Victoria Station handing out lunch packs along the way.

When we arrived at Victoria train station we noticed a guy huddled in a doorway. Charlotte pointed him out and we crossed the road to deliver him a lunch. When we arrived at the doorway, an entrance to an indoor shopping mall, he’d disappeared.

I realised that he may have seen Charlotte at him and decided to move as we walked over. I can’t imagine why he’d think we were a threat but the reality is that I didn’t know his world from his perspective. Thankfully I’ve never lived on the streets.

We walked through the mall and saw him huddled in another doorway. This guy looked old, seventy at least, but I wasn’t sure whether that reflected his age or that his experiences had aged him prematurely.

I walked up with a bag in my hand and the man whilst sitting down seemed to shrink back into himself.

“Excuse me mate” I said

The man looked up. He looked sad and frightened. Said nothing.

“I’ve got this spare lunch here if you want it” I said and handed him the bag.

He took the bag.

“Thank you” he said but didn’t smile and looked down as quickly as he’d looked up.

I wandered off and by the time I’d walked back to Charlotte about 100 yards away I turned and he was gone.

Charlotte and I walked together towards Victoria coach station. A man was sitting there with a sign which said “I need to get home. Can you help me?”

We’d decided before we left the house that we wouldn’t be giving out money out today but this young guy, probably in his early twenties, looked like he could do with a lunch.

“I’ll help this guy” said Charlotte and wandered up to him with the plastic bag.

Then something funny happened. From a little way away I saw the man say “Thank you” and Charlotte still with bag in hand wander away from the guy sitting on the floor.

It’s fair to say he looked confused. I’m pretty sure that never before he’d been offered a lunch and then for this to be cruelly snatched away from him.

As Charlotte wandered back to me head bowed I called out…

“What are you doing Charlotte?” I mused

“He said ‘no thank you’” She shouted back.

“He didn’t” I said “I could see from here that he wanted the lunch”

“Oh no!” said Charlotte as it dawned on her what had happened “What have I done!”

“What you’ve done” I said “Is offer a homeless man a sandwich and some cookies and then snatch it away from him at the last minute. Lets go back and give him the bag.”

We wandered up and I tried to explain that Charlotte had thought that he’d said ‘no thanks’. He smiled and laughed. A wide warm smile and a surprisingly bright laugh.

“It’s okay” he said “Thanks again for the bag”

Having almost exhausted our supply of sandwiches and feeling tired we jumped on the tube heading towards Liverpool street on our way home and found ourselves talking about today.

“We’ve done a good thing today Charlotte” I said

“I know Dad” Charlotte replied “But it’s one meal…I wish something could be done to help permanently.”

“Me too” I replied “I just wish I knew what that something was”

For a while now I’ve been trying to put how Charlotte and I spent this particular day into perspective.

The reality is that the lunches we handed out won’t change lives of the homeless guys we tried to help. It was a nice gesture but not one which will house or clothe or employ the people who have fallen on tough times.

There are countries in the world which are tackling the issue head on. Studies have recently shown that tackling homelessness by housing people quickly and without hassle is actually five times cheaper than tackling the homeless. Finland and Denmark have shown that housing people first has had some success and I’m not sure why more countries have adopted a similar approach.

I’ll leave that for governments to tackle. Hopefully I can help by just carrying on…

…with one small act of kindness at a time.

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