12/01/2010 10:47 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Being Homeless for 35 Minutes in Central London

A couple of years ago, I was in London on a three-day layover after flying in from Africa. I had been in Sierra Leone for several months and was looking forward to walking the streets, hanging out in coffee shops, and seeing friends before heading on.

On my first night in the city, I had nothing important to do, so I took the underground down to Trafalgar Square. I bought a takeaway curry meal for dinner and ate about half of it on a park bench. Then I went walking down Oxford Street for about 15 blocks in search of the nearest Borders bookstore where I hoped to spend the rest of the evening reading books and drinking coffee. I kept the rest of my dinner box with me, because I thought I might run into a homeless person who would appreciate some food. After walking 10 blocks, I hadn't met anyone and began to feel silly about carrying around half a box of vegetable curry, so I finally threw it away.

Sure enough, two blocks later, I came by a panhandler who was sitting beside an ATM (a convenient location, I thought) asking people for spare change as they walked by. I felt bad about throwing away the rest of my dinner, so I decided to see if I could do something else to help.

I asked his permission to sit down and chat. "John" welcomed me and told me his story. Years ago, he had been a successful tradesman but had fallen on hard times, went through a divorce, and so on. If you talk with homeless people in most major cities throughout the world, you'll often hear similar stories. Sometimes they're true and often they're not, but I've learned that it doesn't matter that much. For whatever reason, most people hanging out on the streets all day really don't have a regular place to live.

I talked with John for ten minutes, and his story was growing crazier by the minute. The climax came when he told me that six months ago, he was at this same ATM station when a woman was being robbed. John tried to defend her, but was hurt in the process. The police came and arrested him because the mystery attacker had fled the scene.

At this point I interrupted him. "Look," I said. "I'll give you some money for dinner, but you don't have to lie to me. Do you really expect me to believe you?"

John kept insisting that the story was true, and I may have even started to believe him. "What has he got to lose?" I thought. Perhaps I was feeling especially generous after coming out of Africa for the first time in months, but I gave him £10, which was about $17 at the time. John was very thankful.

I let my guard down a few minutes later when John's face brightened and he said, "Hey, I get a lot of coins from people and they're heavy to carry around all the time. Would you mind exchanging these coins for a ten-pound note?"

I looked at a paper cup in his hand, which was indeed filled with heavy English coins. I gave him the note. John put it in his pocket and stood up. "I'm just going to the washroom down the street," he told me. "Can you watch my stuff for me?"

He took his backpack with him but left his coat, a box of crackers, and another bag with me. As he walked off I realized that he had taken the cup of coins with him too. I was alarmed for a moment, but then I remembered the stuff that he had left in my care.

"That's a clever trick," I thought. "I bet he's thinking that I'll forget to ask him for the coins when he comes back. He is coming back, right?" I looked at his things beside me and felt relieved again. What kind of guy would leave his stuff behind and never return?

Well, I waited for John for ten minutes. Then I waited another five minutes. The whole time, people kept walking by, trying not to make eye contact with me as I sat beside the ATM with a homeless guy's stuff. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. One guy actually said, "Good evening" to me, and I rushed to explain myself.

"Oh, hi. I'm not really sitting here. I mean, I'm just waiting for my friend John. You know John? He, uh, works here sometimes." The man walked on and I grew even more anxious. Around that time, I decided to go through John's things to see what I was faithfully looking after.

To my surprise, I found that the bag he left behind was full of trash. The cracker box was empty. The coat, which I had earlier assumed would never be discarded, was old, tattered, and dirty. That morning I had browsed through a charity shop where I saw dozens of old coats for five pounds or less.

And I realized what I should have known from the beginning -- John was gone, and he had taken almost $17 from me, in addition to the $17 that I willingly gave him, and he wasn't planning on coming back.

I felt incredibly angry and embarrassed. Wasn't I a Very Experienced Traveler? Don't I know how to talk to homeless people in a place like London? How can I go traveling all over Africa, deflecting bribe requests from corrupt officials and staying out of trouble, only to end up losing $17 the first day I get back to Europe?

I was determined to not let John get the better of me. After all, I reasoned, he has to come back sometime. He's probably going to wait half an hour and then return, thinking that I've given up. I'll show him, I thought.

"Nice try, John," I imagined myself saying. "You put on a good effort, but I want my ten pounds back right now."

I sat there for another twenty minutes, looking at the ground and getting more and more angry. I didn't want to admit the truth to myself -- John wasn't coming back. Whether I admitted it or not, though, it was true.

I finally left the ATM in disgust. I couldn't figure out who I was the most upset at--John or myself. There must be some good reason for this, I kept thinking. Maybe I'll run into John at the Borders tonight and I can confront him then.

"Who bought you that hot chocolate? Who paid the extra thirty pence for the whipped cream on top?"

After walking around the London streets for another half-hour, I made it to the Borders I had set out to find a long time ago. John wasn't at the café inside. I didn't see him later that night as I rode the underground back to my guesthouse, and I didn't see him two mornings later as I left London for another city.

Life requires you to take risks. When you take risks, sometimes you lose. Is it worth it to you?

Was it worth it to me that night?

I thought about calling this essay, "How To Lose $34 in London," but I realized that losing the $34 was easy. The hard part was learning to let go of the money long after it had left my pocket.

Whether by his own fault or through the fault of others, John was homeless. While I went around sleeping in hotel rooms or on the couches of friends, John went from shelter to shelter. Given the choice, would I trade places with John for even one day? The idea is laughable -- I could hardly manage to sit on the sidewalk by the London ATM for 30 minutes, knowing that the people passing by thought I was homeless. Yet, some part of me that night was resentful of John and wished that I could be in his place with the $34.


I have a friend, Marie, who works with the homeless in Seattle. One night she came over to talk to us about her recommendations for how we should respond to the many transient people in our city. One thing that Marie said made a big impression on me.

"You can give money if you want," she told us. "But once you give it, let it go. Don't expect a miracle, because many people on the streets are not ready to change their situations. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with helping someone get dinner or a place to stay."

I liked that approach. Do what you can do to help, and then let it go. Live your life, help others, and don't stress out when something doesn't work the way you expected it would. You can still go to Borders and read books at the café.

John, if you're out there, I can't really say "thanks" for taking my money. I'm still a little mad about it. But I appreciate the lessons I learned through my mistake and your chicanery. I've probably been thinking about this long after you've forgotten it, so it's time for me to let it go too.

I hope you got another coat from the charity shop.

I hope you won't be falsely arrested for fending off robbers at the ATM again.

I hope you enjoyed the hot chocolate that I imagined my money being spent on.

Take care, John, and everyone else out there in London and beyond.