…by Paul / from Perth, Scotland / studies MSc Literature and Modernity / 2nd year (PG)

“I swear you look a year younger every time I see you!” said Nathan*, as I approached him. “University life must be agreeing with you. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

Nathan is a friend I have made during my first year in a part-time MSc programme here. He’s in his forties, has dark, cropped hair with sideburns and a slender, weather-tanned face with laughing eyes. He says he used to be a soldier, and he still wears olive-drab fatigues. He’s the sort of person who lets his friends borrow his cellphone – he offered it to me once when I said I was short of call time.

Nathan isn’t a student. In fact he has no connection with the University at all, other than the fact that I regularly bump into him as I walk to campus. He’s a homeless man who begs on the streets. Edinburgh is a big city, and like all cities it has its street-people. Several years ago I used to work as a volunteer at a day-centre for the homeless in Perth, where I live. I got to know many homeless people, and to call some of them friends. I lost a couple of them to the Reaper – I saw another find a flat, a job, and a girlfriend.

That was a longish time ago. What Nathan has done for me is he has reminded me that homeless people are human. Street begging is a controversial issue. What I have realised, however, is that it costs nothing to give people a grin and a few words of conversation, to confirm that shared humanity. Nathan and I usually part with a handshake, and I actually feel honoured.

I’ve just put “Volunteering with the homeless in Edinburgh” into a search engine. It came up with several pages of results. If you’ve a mind to, then consider doing that search and checking out where help might be needed in the city you have made your home for now.

‘Nathan’ is not my friend’s real name, of course. Since I wrote the article above, we had said goodbye for the Christmas break. I had been looking forward to catching up with him in the New Year, but when I arrived at Waverley station at the start of the semester, I found his photograph along with several bunches of flowers attached to the railings. Apparently he had died there on the street. Of course I feel bereft – I shall miss him very much – but his death goes to show how precarious life is for homeless people.

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