We live in a dehumanized society; this is no ground-breaking observation. Every day, we walk past thousands of different people without even acknowledging that they exist as long as they don’t jump out in our everyday routine. Most of us probably don’t even know anything about our neighbors.
How likely is it then that we would know anything about the people living in the streets we walk down to go to work or those living in front of the supermarkets where we run our weekly errands? There’s not a chance.
But let’s just pause for a second and imagine a world where we would actually stop and talk to them.
I will always remember this one time when I saw a homeless boy in the streets of Melbourne.
It was at a time when I was a backpacker and he looked exactly my age, leaving me to wonder what could have possibly happened in his life to put him in such a dire situation.
I did not stop to ask him though and never got the chance to discover his story as well as what had led him to where he was.
I just walked past him and moved on with my life.
On his little cardboard, he had written three words: “Homeless but not hopeless”. For some reason, these words stayed with me long after I had left Australia.
Two weeks ago I came across a homeless man sitting on a bustling spot next to Tottenham Court Road Station in London.
Once again, the chance to have a chat with him eluded me but I promised myself that I would come back and hear his story.
An occasion presented itself as I had to write a feature assignment as part of my journalism training so I stepped forward and introduced myself, a little hesitant at first.
What I found out was the story of a man whose life had spiraled into an unfortunate chain of events but an inspiring story nonetheless, full of hope and resilience.
Jose, or Jo, was born in South Africa before leaving for Portugal at the age of 11 upon his parents’ divorce and his mother’s departure.
He remained in Portugal until a conflicting relationship with his step-mother escalated and led him to go back to South Africa to work with his uncle, the owner of a big-size supermarket in a city called Mupumalanga.
Only 6 months before he arrived, his uncle’s house was burgled and his entire family was threatened with death by the robbers, who tied the children up and went as far as to chop off his aunt’s finger to steal her ring.
Stories like these seem to be the norm unfortunately, according to Jose’s experience.
“I started working six and half days a week with my uncle, with only two days off a month”, Jose says. “I wasn’t getting paid but he provided me with everything I needed and I didn’t have to pay a rent”.
After four years, his uncle decided to move to Australia, leaving his nephew with barely £50,000, an amount that was obviously far from covering his full pay.
Jose managed to open a restaurant with a partner soon after, although their business was never flourishing. “The business was weak because we never got a licence and there was a bottle shop right next door,” he says.
The worst was yet to come as the endemic violence that was so widespread in the country struck him one day when his partner was away.
The business he had carefully taken care of was robbed.
“I was 19 when I had a gun pointed to my head”, Jose remembers. “I begged for my life but they took everything I had: the business’s money, the camera system, my car…”
He stopped the partnership and headed to the UK in 2010, hoping to find better job opportunities as a pastry chef, his passion.
“I managed to meet Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver,” Jose recounts enthusiastically. “I worked for them and they taught me how to cook amazingly”.
Jose worked in a 2-star Michelin restaurant in Essex as well before he met his ex-wife and a series of ill-fated events unfolded.
“I started going to a casino and I got addicted to gambling”, he says. His addiction made him lose everything. “We had a little daughter but my wife and I don’t talk anymore”.
Jose now lives on Charing Cross Road but he speaks with no resentment or bitterness, just hope.
“Things are getting better now: I haven’t been gambling for six months and I’m about to start a new job at a restaurant in Soho. I even get to see my little Isabella every three weeks”.
With his life getting back on the right track, Jose allows himself to dream big. “I really want to work for Marco Pierre White now”.
Not many people will find out about his life story though, as he says very few people stop and have a talk with him. “There’s only a few regulars, because they know me”.
Maybe this could be the right moment to take some time to stop and acknowledge the people beyond homelessness.