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.
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?’
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’
‘£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?’
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.
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.