I just want to share with you all a little story that is both sad yet inspiring at the same time.

Have any of you heard of Józef Stawinoga?

No? Thought not.

On the Wolverhampton ring road there used to be a tent erected on a grass verge between two lanes. Although few knew anything about him, the guy in the tent wandered the town with a long beard and dirty coat, and was often seen sweeping outside his tent with a broom. He spoke only a few words of English and responded to ‘Fred’. When I first moved there I was always curious about him. He was always placid, never causing trouble and never pestering people.

It turned out that ‘Fred’ was actually Józef. He moved to the UK in the 1940s to lead a fairly normal life, working at a local steelworks. Although his life is still largely a mystery, he is thought to have been involved in the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 and was held as a prisoner by the Russians. His evidently terrible experiences in World War II gave him serious problems with claustrophobia, and the only place he felt safe was on the grass verge of the ring road. No-one knows quite what happened, but he basically disconnected himself from society. He became a tramp, and a fairly common sight in the town.

The council were surprisingly tolerant. In fact, they built replacement tents and at one point it encompassed “an operation involving the army, the police, social services and environmental health“. At the time a spokesperson explained why they were so accepting of Józef’s lifestyle:

“Although this is not an ideal situation it has been accepted as the best option for him, taking into account his personal history and the fact that he can be visited daily by the council’s meals on wheels service.”

Every time I drove on the ring road I would look out at his tent. At night I would see a light flickering inside, knowing that this curious man was in there, shrouded in mystery.

I was not the only one who was curious. Józef became more and more a local celebrity. He was the focus of a Facebook group with over 4000 members. He was even seen as a holy man by many members of the local Asian community. Several would regularly pay their respects to him. One such example included a Sikh woman who travelled 6 miles every morning for 13 years to leave a flask of hot tea and a sandwich outside his tent. Its sad to think that he never had any idea of just how many people cared about him.

Just over a year ago he died at the ripe old age of 86, spending over 40 years in his tent. So much is still unknown about him.

In a society that is increasingly tolerant of newly accepted norms, many are intolerant of the homeless. I find it heartening to see a government institution be so understanding and respectful of an individual case such as this. I also find it heartening to think of how the local community in Wolverhampton accepted Józef for who he was.

The next time you walk past a homeless person on the street, just think about what their story could be. It certainly made me think a little differently. Maybe if we all think a little different we can help make things better for everyone.

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