Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A Heartwarming Festive Tale

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?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Pros And Cons Of Dovecot Towers

I moved to Dovecot Towers during a housing panic. It’s far from perfect here and frequently a nightmare. If I was to move, it would be to a similar development with the same troubles, albeit in another part of town. I’d have to pack and find somewhere else, enduring the whole reference/deposit dance. The flat itself would more than likely be identical. And so, trying to be rational and scientific, I have written a list of pros and cons to weight up what I should do. I now have graphs, pie charts, venn diagrams and very white knuckles.

Pros: being near the city. Bars are within lurching distance, and visitors can pop round, casually. It’s like being in Austin Powers, so trendy, hip and happening is it.

Con: being near the city. No community, no neighbourhood, drunken scallies and yobbish, wealthy ‘young professionals’ who vomit on the pavement as they pass my home. Imagining you are being followed home by a ranting drunk to realise it’s actually your neighbour (who’s ranting and drunk).

Pro: being a brownfield development. Dovecot Towers uses derelict waste land instead of paving over rare orchids. Sited on demolished Georgian slums, I am reasonably certain that no dormice were relocated to satisfy my housing needs.

Con: being a brownfield development. Stretched out before me is a magnificent, cascading vista of elegant and majestic building sites, with cranes, obscured by hazy cement dust.

Pro: I never see my neighbours. I wouldn’t enjoy that village mentality, where you can’t buy haemorrhoid cream without everyone knowing, then having nodding acquaintances enquiring after your piles.

Con: I never see my neighbours. If I should die, pigeons could chew the face off my rotting corpse to feed their young, and even then, nobody would know.

Pro: Everything is so close. I don’t need car, and I can walk everywhere, no queues for taxis, or surly bus drivers, no saving change for the ticket machine, or investing in season tickets.

Con: I am always soaking wet, and my shoes are threadbare. I visit suburban friends with a tent and Kendall Mint Cake, just in case (am I over-cautious?) And if I did own a car, there’d be nowhere to park it.

Pro: I don’t have to bother with fitting out my home, as most white goods, a shower etc are already provided.

Cons: The goods provided are second rate, and break down if I have so much as one negative thought about the brand.

Pro: Shops are close by. Luxury goods are within shooting range of my debit card. I can find designer clothes, fashionable accessories, and there’s that chi-chi Farmers Market.

Cons: Balenciaga is within easy reach, but value beans elude me.

Should I put my life in a tailspin? All that turmoil, for more of the same? Life in the city is an acquired taste, but one I have acquired. I can’t imagine living in the suburbs: all that commuting, no CafĂ© Nero etc. So here I am, choosing between the rock and the hard place, the frying pan and the fire.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Please Don't Send Me Out There!

Today, I am reluctantly and vaguely considering the dreaded Great Flat Hunt. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t endure that torture again. I’ve been scanning the paper, and looking online. I even tried Gumtree, which once led to some truly disturbing calls from perverts. Gumtree is used by mad people (including my former land lady, who used up much of this planet’s supply of mad).

This is how to find a flat. First, see into the future. Buy the newspapers before they come out. Phone the landlord the month before flat is up for rent (or if possible before they are aware that they own property).

Use mind control, compelling them to rent you the flat. Ten years rent up front in advance (cash, of course) will cement the deal. Deposits are complicated these days: first dibs on your first born’s stem cells, and a promise never to live in the house you are paying for, so as not to damage it, might give you an advantage.

Next, brace yourself for estate agents, and the wily look on their faces as they push you into whatever property’s been on their book’s the longest, disdaining your perfectly reasonable upper rent limit, glancing at their workmates and smirking, undermining your determination to save money.

There are small ads in local papers where close to Manchester city centre means Birmingham, and two bedrooms translates as a studio with an alcove. That’s not to mention the hideous ritual of the wait outside, where it’s first come first served, and the orderly queue is a rugby scrum of psychological warfare, and you must pretend to be…The Best Tenant In The World! (And utterly perfect.)

There’s the tense moment of giving in your notice. Those with tight finances (or just no money at all) must time this carefully to coincide with the date of their new tenancy. A gap of more than a few days means paying rent on two homes, or staying on floors and hostels, and we all hate that.

Then there are references, and the deposit dance (the reality of needing a one months rent upfront and a months deposit to hand over to your new landlord, while you’re still waiting for the former landlord to hand over the money they have supposedly been keeping safe.)

Worse is the actual move. The idea of begging cardboard boxes from supermarkets, carrying them home in the rain and storing them in a tiny flat with no space causes yet more drudgery and fear. And the packing, stuffing valuables with the newspaper you’ve been hoarding, in the sure and certain knowledge that at least one cherished item will be smashed, and something vital will vanish en route.

And for what? For more of the same, hauling everything you own from one end of town to another to escape criminal neighbours, noise, and tiny capsule flats, only to end up in exactly the same situation.

I don’t feel strong enough. Not yet anyway.