I’ve been trying to be a good Samaritan for some time now and failing. But this week I discovered that even well-trained, experienced good Samaritans — who work for the Samaritans — can fail too. Reports have surfaced revealing the ‘abuse’ of vulnerable callers by a small number of the charity’s phone volunteers.
It’s a sad state of affairs when even the Samaritans are subject to scandal. They do excellent work and have always been the Eton of Britain’s volunteer sector. Two years ago, I tried to get in and failed, which was a bit of a shock. I’d assumed that my listening skills would make me the ideal volunteer. I was, however, politely informed that their waiting list was so long I’d have to wait before I could get on their waiting list. I’m still waiting.
All in all, being a good Samaritan in modern Britain is not as easy as you’d think. I always imagined that with a big heart, time and energy you could work for the charity of your choice. I soon discovered that unless you have a car, speak a foreign language, are good with computers, can teach immigrants English, speak fluent LGBT and are sensitive to racial bias and gender inequalities, you’re unqualified for a lot of high-calibre charity work. In fact, you’ll be lucky to get a gig in the back room of your local high-street charity shop.
My first attempt was with Age UK. I was good at my interview and shone at my group induction class — or so I believed until I got a letter of rejection. More rejection letters followed from more charities. The usual explanation was that there were too many applicants already, or that my set of skills — ‘listening, empathy and funny one-liners’ — were not suitable for them.
But during lockdown, charities needed more volunteers, particularly to act as ‘phone befrienders’. These, I was told, would offer ‘support, reassurance and friendship to vulnerable people self-isolating’. It was the perfect job for me! For years I’ve been offering support, reassurance and friendship over the phone to people isolated at home feeling unloved and forgotten: they’re called freelance journalists. My name was added to the charity’s list. They promised they’d get in touch. They never did.
Eventually, through a small local charity, I made contact with someone in need of a phone friend. I thought we were getting along great until she ended our conversation with: ‘I’m sorry. But you’re too boring. Please delete my number.’ I was defriended by a person desperate for a friend.
After that I figured I’d work outside the system. When I recently saw a man near Trafalgar Square shouting and swearing at the world, I decided to help. To most people he was just another lone ‘nutter’ raging at life, but I resolved to let him know that someone cared.
I approached him slowly and, radiating compassion and understanding, said softly: ‘Good day, sir. How are you today? I was hoping that we could talk for a minute. I’m interested in what you have to say.’ The man looked at me and replied in an African accent: ‘I do not talk to homosexuals!’ And with that, he charged off down the street. I followed him. ‘But I’m not a homosexual,’ I said. ‘I just want to talk.’ ‘Go away, homosexual!’ he said and began to sprint to safety in a nearby church, seeking sanctuary from the do-gooding sodomite on his trail.
Likewise, I used to take the easy option of chucking spare change or the odd sandwich at people on the street, and I’d walk away glowing with virtue. But then I vowed to take time to hear their stories, and try to inspire a bit of hope. I should point out that I have no medical or psychiatric training. Instead, I respond with a mixture of inspiring suggestions and motivational exercises, designed to build self-esteem, and show people that they really can change their lives.
Alas, they don’t always seem to see it that way. It turns out they did want the spare change, the sandwich and for me to shut up. The first time I tried it I was five minutes into my uplifting spiel when a young man said: ‘Mate… is there much more of this crap?’
They say beggars can’t be choosers, but that’s not true. Many choose not to talk to me. There’s one homeless guy I’d give my little pep talk to. I thought we had a rapport and that he appreciated me taking the time. Yet the other day he saw me approaching, rolled his eyes and said: ‘Not you again!’ He then grabbed his sleeping bag, dog and Styro-foam cup, and took off down the road.