A simple conversation

Just under a week ago I was cycling across Waterloo bridge on my way from work in Brixton to an evening Italian class in Holborn. As usual I assumed I was late. It was dark, being late October and after 7pm. As my pedals pumped to haul me closer to my destination I saw a young man, he could have been a boy, sitting on the pavement. He had his back up against the balustrade of the bridge, with his sleeping bag pulled up over his entire body – only his face showed. He looked startled – as though in a constant state of unpleasant shock – which after a few seconds I had processed into an expression of fear, abandonment and loneliness.

I knew, too late, that I should have stopped. But now I was another 50 yards further on, in a dual carriageway, late for my class.  My mental intertia kept me moving. I reached City Lit college about 5mins later – with a good 10mins to spare until my class. I had been wrong, I wasn’t late, and I could have stopped. I felt disappointed in myself for having convinced myself of this fact – a fact that meant I could cycle on justifiably instead of seeing if I could help the man. I resolved to return to the same spot after my lesson, to see if he was still there. Of course, I forgot. The satisfaction (smugness) of an evening productively spent, and dinner 20mins ride away, distracted me. I only remembered later that night of my broken promise to myself.

Four days later. This time I’m on my way from Kentish Town, where my parents live, to Angel. A friend was playing a gig, on at 9, and I – for once – knew I was spinning wheels with time to spare. I chained my bike up outside the Sainsbury’s opposite the back of the N1 shopping centre, and in doing so noticed another man sitting on the street. He was propped up against a a bin, up to his waist in a sleeping back, with a dog by his side. He wore a hat, his head was lowered into his hands. A crutch was propped, upright, against the bin next to him, like a flag of surrender. I needed to speak to him.

‘Hello mate, how you doing’

He looks up, momentarily bewildered and aware. He has blue eyes and grey stubble. He is probably mid-50s. I realised my attempt to sound confiendently friendly had probably made me sound like a policeman.

‘Ah…’

He realises I’m not.

‘Not good mate. I’m struggling. People just keep on walking by’

What do I say to that? Short of the ability to make it all go away, and resenting the option to try to find a positive spin on a miserable predicament, I change tack.

‘What’s your dog’s name?’

‘Sonny’

I begin to say hello to Sonny.

‘He can’t hear you, he’s deaf’

I say hello anyway. We turn back to him.

‘I had a stroke 2 weeks ago. I’ve got a house to move into on Monday. I just need to get off the streets for the next 3 nights.’

‘Where are you going to go?’

‘I’ve been working with Camden Housing First, I can get into the hostel there if I can get the money together’

‘How much?’

‘£30 a night’

This shocks me. This is about £900 a month. My rent is £650. Most of my friends would consider £900/month totally unafforable.

‘I do get other things with it. I get to see a doctor, a new set of clothes – underwear – I get counselling with it, a shower’.

But there’s no option to leave those bits out, simply to get a roof over your head. It’s £30 or the street.

‘And there’s more dear ones out there, I tell you’.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Richard’

I have a fiver in my wallet. I give it to Richard, who shows Sonny before folding it into his bag. It joins a gang of change – £30 looks unlikely for tonight.

A woman walks up:

‘Does your dog eat bread?’

‘I honestly don’t know darling. You can’t ask him either because he’s deaf’.

The woman tears off a piece of baguette and offers it to Sonny. Sonny is not impressed. She leaves it anyway and walks on.

I had no qualms about giving my money to Richard. He was, without doubt, sober.  I don’t want to judge those using, but I can’t give them money for their habit either. One of the first things Richard told me: ‘I’m not even drinking, I don’t do drugs. I don’t believe in them’. He had stopped drinking ‘5 or 6 years ago – the best thing I ever did’.

His tale was too detailed and too honestly expressed to be faked for sympathy. He’d moved down from Livingstone’s birthplace in Scotland in 1988 – the year I was born – and worked a number of jobs; security guard, on building sites, in offices. He was a trained blacksmith (now that’s a real skill). Finally he’d been self-employed as a handyman. Then the crisis hit. He lost his work, his clients. He couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments.

He ended up homeless – as did 112,000 others in 2013, a 26% increase in four years. Finally ending up on the streets 6 months ago, Richard joined an appalling 6,500 others sleeping rough on the streets of one of the world’s wealthiest cities. This number represents a 75% increase in London in four years.

‘I’ve always worked hard. I’m not afraid of work. I just want a bit of respect from people. I don’t feel I get that. I remember when people used to help each other out.’

Richard also suffers from a form of spinal decay, hence his crutches. ‘And of top of all of this, I’ve got depression’. This, really, is no surprise.

Another woman walks up. She’s been to the shop, and bought treats for Sonny. She hands Richard the packet (Sonny is definitely interested this time), and the change – a pound. Richard is grateful, as is Sonny, and he feeds Sonny half the packet over the next few minutes as we speak. But I find it puzzling that generosity has been directed twice now at the dog, not the man.

I asked him why he’d been allowed out of hospital, despite having nowhere to go.

‘The government’.

Was his simple reply. ‘They told me in there that if I’d been in before the Coalition, I would have been ok. But the cuts mean I’m out here’.

Here is a man: post-stroke, with a spinal degenerative disease and diagnosed depression, who has worked his whole adult life until the last couple of years, being put onto the street by the National Health Service because they can’t afford to keep him in.

And it cannot be a coincidence that homeless has risen so dramatically in the last few years. The economy has not been providing for people, sabotaged as it was by the greed of the financial sector. The Coalition government has brought the axe down on public finances, usually on the weakest (while the financial sector remains the biggest recipient of welfare handouts). The bedroom tax, reductions in housing benefit, a rise in council rates, ‘efficiency’ savings for the NHS, massive cuts in Council budgets leading to reductions in vital services, criminalisation of squatting empty residential properties. These are government policies than result in destitution.

‘I can’t get benefits because I don’t have an address. I can’t get an address because I can’t get benefits’. The hostel, we know, is £30 a night. A job is, currently, out of the  question. ‘Thank God they were able to get me a care worker. She’s been amazing. She’s been helping me get this house sorted’.

All being well, Richard will move into a house up in Tottenham on Monday. The State – my taxes, your taxes – will provide this for him. Next week he will also start a course at college: ‘sign language’.

‘So you can speak to Sonny?’. We laugh.

He has not, quite, been totally abandoned. But he has spent the last 6 months on the streets of London.

This is, let us not forget, a complete disgrace. Who knows how many years of life it will rob from him.

‘Is it the first time you’ve been homeless?’

‘Yes. And I will do everyting I can to make sure it never, ever happens again’.

In retrospect I should have gone to the cashpoint, taken out the next £25, and got Richard off the street that night. But I didn’t, probably because I’d already done more than I, or most people, would usually do for someone destitute. I felt better.

But what use is £5 if you need £30? Some, no doubt, but not much.

Don’t forget I’d spoken to Richard in the first place to right my own wrong of cycling past that young man on Waterloo bridge four days previously. By my redemption makes no difference to him, whoever he may be. Wherever he may be.

Much of what Richard says sticks with me. But this in particular:

‘I’ve got a life. We’ve all got stories. I just want a bit of respect from people. I don’t feel I get that. Sometimes people just spit on you.’

I doubt you spit on street sleepers.  You’d have to be real scum to do so. But the common stigmatisation of street sleepers in the media and by government is something we are all complicit in each time we walk past and find a reason to ignore.

Remembering they are people with lives, with stories: it takes a bit of time and a bit of effort. We are not going to do it everytime. But ask yourself how desperately you need to rush to where you’re going, and how much a conversation might help someone.

But do it for them. Not you.

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4 comments

  1. The sentiment of this article is brilliant, and you’re right – ‘do it for them, not you’. A lot of people will ‘help’ people experiencing street homelessness to give themselves a social high.

    But… please do not give money to people who are begging on the streets. No homelessness hostels charge £30/night’s stay. And you can’t just walk up and access hostels on the night in any case. Rough sleepers are referred into hostels by other homelessness or statutory organisations, many of which operate waiting lists (beds are in high demand), and their stay is paid for from their housing benefit, sometimes plus a small service charge to cover utilities and usually meals, which residents are expected to pay from their statutory benefit entitlement.

    You do not need a fixed address to access government benefits. You can use the address of a homelessness day centre to receive mail, and use their computer facilities to initiate a claim. If Richard is living on the streets, he is most likely to have been met by an Outreach team connected to a homelessness organisation, who will be working with him and supporting him to process claims in partnership with Job Centre Plus.

    Moving into his Tottenham accommodation would be impossible unless he was in receipt of benefits, as he would require his housing benefit to cover his rent (unless he had another means of income, which from what you’ve said, seems unlikely).

    80% of newcomers to the streets do not spend a second night out. If Richard has spent 6 months on the streets, it is fair to assume he has complex needs. The picture is bigger than money and a roof over his head. There are other needs which must be addressed – in Richard’s case, his mental health, and maybe more.

    Research collated by pan-London homelessness organisations indicate that the majority of people begging are not street homeless but in accommodation, and this money will most likely be used towards drug or alcohol misuse, which is fatal to people’s health and is a barrier to them accepting help from support services. It is often difficult for people like Richard to face up to the fact that they must work hard to change their situation, and engaging with services to change your situation can be very hard work.

    Giving someone shelter and money is not the solution to street homelessness, and should never be the focus. It is about building trust, and helping someone to see that they have the power to change their situation. The focus should be on ultimately cultivating healthy relationships and a purpose. If someone has these, they will be given a reason to keep a roof over their head, and not move back to an entrenched street homeless lifestyle. Many people need a reason to stay indoors, and would rather be out on the streets than in a lonely flat.

    And, I just want to make clear, I am not trying to demonise Richard or call him a liar! – I obviously don’t know his situation, and with all respect – neither will you after a friendly chat during which you gave him money. If there is more to the story, he probably wouldn’t have wanted to divulge it in case it jeopardised your gesture of good will. I’d just like to make people aware that giving money to people living on the streets can deter them from engaging with services designed to support them away from the streets, and is not a solution to the problem. I have heard numerous stories from Outreach workers of how they have finally made a breakthrough with an entrenched rough sleeper, only for a well-wishing member of the public to turn up with a tenner – and the hard work is undone.

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks for this, much of it new detail to me.

    Richard was working with Camden Homes First, and his accommodation in Tottenham was going to be funded entirely from housing benefit etc. He had a bed reserved in the hostel we discussed, and confirmed with me what you mentioned – you can’t just walk in.

    Exactly why Richard was on the street, and said he would be until Monday most likely, I don’t know precisely. But I was struck by the sober earnestness of what he told me, and how little he was attempting to put himself in others’ way that evening. He looked genuinely totally downtrodden – and there was no good reason for him to be on the street at that point, if he didn’t have to be (it seemed to me). I would not normally hand money over like that, for many of the reasons you outline.

    Perhaps his benefits were not sufficient to cover him? Perhaps for some reason he wasn’t able to access them? Or simply it was nearing the end of the month and they had evaporated? I’m not sure. And I could have been duped, I know that (though it would have been a performance of skillful and highly tactical deception at a moments’ notice). But I also know it’s very possible for people to fall through ever-widening cracks in our social safety net – and that night it was Richard, not the state, that got the benefit of my doubt.

    I would be interested to know more about this £30 claim of his though, as this was the reason I gave him money. Otherwise my original intention was simply to talk.

  3. This is a very thoughtful piece, and I think underlying it and the comments above is a question I’ve been turning over in my mind for a while – namely, why do we need honesty from the vulnerable? I’ve volunteered in several shelters over the years and had a wide range of conversations with people on the streets around London (I intermittently blog the stories I’ve heard over here http://justaplotofearth.blogspot.co.uk/), and you hear some true stories and some that feel true until you hear almost the same words from so many people (this whole ‘they’ve got a bed for me, I just need £20’ etc thing, and being sober etc) and you ring St Mungo’s or wherever and learn that nowhere charges that much for a bed. I’ve handed out twenties before and felt totally duped when I’ve realised I was fed a line.

    But it makes me wonder about why I think I have the right to require someone to have a certain kind of story – sober, hard times out of their control that led them to this place etc – to engage with them. If I think our systems are broken, and rigged to the detriment of vulnerable people, then why shouldn’t their genuine truth be good enough? Even if it’s that they fucked up, over and over again, life was very unkind to them, they turned to substances etc. Because our society makes that all too easy to happen. I guess my point is, if we have a certain kind of politics which says the way we’re running things is fucked, then can we really require a clean/neat narrative from those right on the margins? I don’t have the answers, but it is something I’ve been pondering for a while now. Thanks for writing a powerful piece.

  4. Emily, that’s a really good point. The reality of people who find themselves entrenched street homeless often aren’t media-friendly stories, such as the fabricated stereotype of the ‘middle-class homeless’ which the media were peddling a few years ago, asserting that ‘it can happen to anyone’ and that people are homeless through no fault of their own due to redundancy and mortgage defaults. This is a story which many charities will use in marketing too, as it presents homeless people as victims, people like you or me who are just down on their luck. This may be true for some, but for many, family and friends will break the fall and this will not lead to street homelessness. The majority of street homeless people have found themselves sleeping out for more complex and more unattractive reasons (the single biggest cause is relationship breakdown (loss of family and friends/leaving care or institutions such as prison)). Charities are afraid of presenting the rougher stories.

    But, as you ask – why not? If someone has developed an alcohol dependency or substance misuse problem, does that make them less worthy of help? What about people with personality disorders, who are aggressive, unpleasant and manipulative to all they meet and very difficult to support? Sex offenders? However that person got there shouldn’t matter, what should matter is that they are there and they need help.

    Max, you’re absolutely right, Richard has fallen through the cracks in the state, and the cracks in our society too. Communities are not as cohesive as they once were, people don’t know their neighbours, families live far apart. In an increasingly ‘connected’ world, people like Richard are finding themselves lonelier than ever. Your action of reaching out to Richard that night will be a step towards decreasing the disconnection, which is the root of the problem, I feel…

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