About the age of twenty, the girl on the street was very beautiful, and very drugged. She was struggling to pull the shreds of her top far enough together to cover her breasts, muttering to herself and crying inconsolably.
"What happened here?" I asked my friend, seizing a jacket.
"I'm not sure," said Christine. "I was just heading to the station when a guy pulled up and pushed this girl out of his car." Christine's voice lowered. "One of the guys up at the station said he reckoned she had just turned a trick - her first trick. It's awful."
"Christ, I just fucking love my neighborhood, don't you?" I growled, as we emerged onto the street and towards the girl, who was now slumped on the ground with her head in her hands. As she raised her face, I could see blood coagulating around her nose and mouth. Her pupils were pin-pricks, her eyes running into little rivers of black mascara. She sat mutely as we draped the jacket around her shoulders. When we asked what we could do, she murmured "ciggie" without meeting our eyes.
Christine and I helped the girl, "Mia" into my flat, feeling that we couldn't leave her out in the literal cold and rain. Our enquiries were fairly pointless - Mia didn't want to talk, let alone about what awful experience she had just been through. After Christine went on her way, I did what I could for Mia- but beyond a steady supply of cigarettes, that didn't turn out to be much. She ate only a little of the food I heated up, and refused the offer of a shower or clean clothes. I offered to take her to the hospital, or the police station, and nearly sent her flying out the door in terror. I soon ascertained that she had nobody she could call, and nowhere she could safely go.
I started calling women's shelters. Youth shelters. Family assistance centres. I called every number listed in the phone book under Crisis Accomodation, but there was no room at the inn. And, with each phone call that I made, and each time I was told that there were no beds for Mia, the little voice in my head grew louder; Why don't you let her stay here?
I have a spare bed. My fridge is full of food and my cupboard full of spare linen. I have more clothes than I really need. There's more than enough room here to support Mia - but I didn't offer. I was afraid that she would rob me. I was afraid she might trash my house. I was afraid that when she came off whatever she was on, she might punch my lights out. I was afraid for all the reasons that prejudice against her situation dictated. She came from the street.
In the end, that's where she returned. That is, for all I know. After about two hours, she announced her intention of going to the Cross. All I could do was to give her a bag of food and beg her to be careful. I never saw or heard from her again.
Christine tried to cheer me up the following day. "You did enough" she said. "You can't save the world, you know. You did what you could." But I doubted it. I hadn't offered Christine a bed. I'd never turned my back on her for a moment while she was in my house. Even the jacket I gave her was a tatty old thing that I didn't want.
Every day, I walk down my street and see more people like Mia, who need the sort of basic, practical help I could provide, like a hot meal or a bed for the night. But instead, I toss some change, or a piece of fruit from my grocery shopping. Like so many of us, too selfish to risk what is mine in order to give another their rightful due. And, like so many of us, pretending that what I do is good enough.
How far should we go to help someone in need?