Just before Xmas a few years ago, my friend Anna and I were enjoying a drink in a crowded bar, the atmosphere rich with boozy fumes and yuletide bonhomie. A man lingered outside, where his demeanour grew increasingly animated, even (dare I say it?) attention seeking.
Every night, this particular bar allocated a pitch to one beggar, donating leftovers and a large milky coffee in return for The Beggar Of The Day collecting tables and chairs from the pavement at closing time (enforced dignity from obligatory labour, perhaps).
It was freezing. The designated beggar waited outside warming his hands on the heater high above the door, jumping up and down, directing frosty breath towards the windows, unsettling the revellers, who averted their eyes.
Anna and I have both worked with homeless people. Official safety blankets are riddled with holes, and he could easily have fallen through (insufficient statutory need/no local connection) a situation which might well condemn a vulnerable man to sleeping rough. The temperature being well below zero, we thought we’d intervene: point him towards an emergency shelter, contact the rough sleepers initiative, or something.
I wasn’t feeling self righteous, and neither was Anna. Rough sleepers live by their wits, prey to uncertainties like the weather, public piety, capricious, self-righteous benevolence and scepticism, whilst simultaneously battling the accompanying health problems, both mental and physical.
By the time we left, the man was flamboyantly warming his hands underneath the heater, to mass indifference. As we passed, he wished us a Merry Xmas, and expectantly held out his hand. Anna posed some questions - each received a neat reply: he hadn’t contacted the shelter as he was new to town (I’d seen him around recently)… the rough sleepers initiative was run by judgemental god-botherers… (it isn’t) and so on.
He didn’t want assistance, or advice; he wanted cash, probably because he was an addict, and I wasn’t stumping up. Not through disapproval or squeamishness - but because I refused to pay for heroin which could leave him comatose on a sub zero night, when he might drift away to die quietly, alone in the dark. Other than invite him back (get real) there was nothing else I could do.
The amount of actual rough sleepers is hotly disputed. Government statistics claim that nationwide, five hundred people genuinely live on the streets. Anecdotally, and from my own observations this is a gross underestimate. Anyone crossing a city at night will glimpse spectral figures in the half distance. They are the roofless, searching for somewhere to settle in safety, keeping to the shadows, anxious to avoid the gaze of both the police and violent drunks (they often get a kicking at closing time.)
Renting is inherently precarious. Landlords can still end tenancies abruptly, and those fresh from prison or care homes might not be able to cope with finding and paying the rent. I once had a flat in a social housing block, where tenancies were occasionally allocated to people who had recently been homeless.
In one deserted flat, the caretaker was distressed to find no furniture or belongings, indeed anything homely, just unopened bills, and a card which read: ‘Happy Xmas son, glad to hear you’ve got your life in order, and have found yourself a home.’
‘Son’ was badly damaged by years on the street, and had no support network easing him back into the world of the housed. He slept in the corridor, then in the foyer, eventually wandering back onto the streets, never to return.
After rebuffing a homeless beggar, I wasn't feeling too pleased with myself as I made my way home that night. Then I saw a man carrying some large folded cardboard boxes. He slipped into the undergrowth. Discreetly but hastily, he constructed an improvised bivouac, first spreading festive bin liners on the ground to ensure a water proof base, topped by several flattened seasonal boxes as insulation against the frozen earth.
Next, a sort of cardboard coffin, lined with newspaper (another box protected his head.) Wrapped in a cocoon of blankets donated by homeless charities, he crowned another box with more bin liners. As long as it didn’t rain, this inventive man might just survive the freezing night.
Here in The Wonderful World of Rental, we are all a hair’s breadth away from homelessness. If fortune decrees a downturn, then you, me, and everyone we know could be thrown out onto the streets. Should that fate befall me, at least I will know how to assemble an effective, temporary shelter using rubbish, and I won’t expect a happy ending. Did you?