The Sound of Homelessness

Nina Jervis
3 min readAug 18, 2022
Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash

I went to a local music festival recently. One of the acts, an artfully-dishevelled man in a faded checked shirt, took to the stage and explained the sentiment behind a song he was about to perform.

What happened, he said, was that a homeless man had asked him for some spare change. But instead of refusing — as he told us he usually would have done — the singer coughed up a few pence. Then he and the homeless man had a cosy chat about life.

“I’ve learned the importance of not judging anyone…” he explained, caressing his heavily-tattooed guitar, “and the importance of being seen, y’know? Because that’s something we all deserve. To be seen.”

Then he started playing his song. “You’re too busy staring down at your phone to really seeeeee…” he wailed in earnest, eyes screwed shut.

It was a musical lecture of the type I’ve heard many, many times before. They began with Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, which my dad would play on his acoustic guitar downstairs, as my sisters and I tried to sleep upstairs.

“Have you seen the old man in the closed-down market, kicking up the papers with his worn-out shoes?” Dad would sing softly in accompaniment, probably with his eyes closed in earnest as well.

Maybe it’s because that song reminds me of my dad, but I don’t find it quite as annoying as the one I heard at the festival. Or as annoying as Phil Collins singing Another Day in Paradise, wearing a pained expression and a Rolex watch.

(Honestly, homeless people make the most fabulous creative muses. Somebody really ought to pay them for it).

Maybe it’s because Ralph McTell’s lyrics at least ask whether you’ve seen homeless people or not. They don’t assume that you consider them to be invisible, which in turn makes you the villain of the song.

For the record, I don’t need my eyes opening. I see homeless people everywhere. I just don’t want to interact with them.

If that sounds harsh, let me explain. I don’t want to interact with any strangers on the street, whether they’ve got homes or not. This has nothing to do with judgment or ethics. It’s simply about my being an introvert; a person who is profoundly uncomfortable with stranger-chat.

Nina Jervis

Writer and professional empathiser (not necessarily in that order).