New Year 2019 - Taken from an old diary: a homeless encounter
This is taken from an old diary of mine and a story about a man we shall call “Mark”. This particular encounter is interesting to me for a couple of reasons:
We touch on some important issues. It shows the proximity we all are to homelessness and our collective callousness and distance from it - the paranoia I display is troubling, but some might say justified; but also the severity of the Public Space Protection Orders and the effects it had on the people living through it. These were order introduced by the government for local authorities to create spaces in which powers to "prohibit specified things being done in the restricted area". This mean councils could choose to introduce any kind of restrictive orders on behaviour that was deemed “unreasonable”. As a piece of legislation it is completely open to interpretation and would be completely self regulated unless expressly rejected by the Secretary of State. In this case they felt that open fires, rough sleeping and camping in central Brighton was deemed to be "unreasonable" and the powers included an ability to confiscate and demand the ceasing of anything that would be in contravention of the order. In some cities this could be a demand to keep dogs on a lead, stopping loud cars being driven in areas and preventing people under the age of 21 to enter an apartment block. On a practical level in Brighton this gave council workers the power to remove possessions and move the people along which was criticised at the time for unfairly targeting the homeless and travelling communities essentially acted as a "cleanser" and often leaving people sleeping rough with little to no shelter.
Rather than helping with the problem another homeless gentleman I spoke to further down the line, John, actually said that the order made it more dangerous for him as the people usually sleeping in the centre of town were forced to the outskirts with lots of others. This meant a build up of homeless populations in certain areas leading to tension and increased crime.
Anyway, this story resurfaced in my psyche because of a Guardian video I saw today about the how we are psychologically hardwired to dehumanise homeless people and looking back through my notes, managed to find the passage once again.
I would encourage you to watch the link above first before continuing. Alternatively, read the piece then watch the video. It’s a fascinating insight into human behaviour.
The camp which is mentioned later is the protest set up against these orders in the centre of Brighton, originally a peaceful camp but was eventually cleared after repeated complaints and suspected criminal activity in the area.
This year, with Brexit on the horizon perhaps we should be more aware of those who are the are most vulnerable in society and really question the effects that legislation will have on the individual and how we can help. Even talking to people can break a chronic isolation that can be devastating to people. The feeling of being walked past, ignored, again and again and again and again and again.
An excerpt from my diary dated Monday 17th April 2017:
I thought I would tell you a little story, as close as possible as it was to be being told to me, with perhaps just a little hint of the dramatic (such is my style):
I was walking home on Sunday night. In my head horrendous thoughts were beginning to fester once again in the corners of my mind and if I'm honest I was desperate for a distraction. It’s a quiet evening, almost no one around. It’s a Sunday night, you know what it’s like at 2am on a Sunday night? Dead.
A young homeless man called Mark [for the purposes of this post] who I knew well was walking past interrupted my thought processes with a jarring "'alright mate?"
I paused, slightly taken aback, before nodding.
"You look caught in your head," he continued.
"I am," I reply honestly, "but, more importantly so do you. Good night?"
He sighed deeply. "If I'm honest mate, no. Some wankers thought it would be fucking hilarious to cover me in water. Of course the coppers have also started doing that new thing and nicking my stuff too. So I'm fucking freezing with nowhere to stay tonight."
"Mate..." Attempting to show in a single syllable as much concern and sympathy as humanly possible. I know what he wants, but having just worked a 13 hour shift and the last thing I really want to do is to sit and have a long conversation or, thinking shamefully, give up a fiver - of which I had plenty of cash from the night to spare. Shamefully my mind leapt to the reasoning that I didn't want to give it to him because he might be high or drunk, or spend it on substances to make him so.
So do I, I reason quietly. And, more importantly: so will I.
Trying to ignore the slight paranoia, we are silent for a second, both slightly awkwardly waiting for the other person to prompt the rest of the conversation.
Mark broke the moment's silence: "Sorry to ask, you help me out a lot, but all I need is 8 quid and I can have a bed and a shower."
The £8 sits in my wallet, but despite seeing his cold and wet clothes I still feel shamefully mistrustful. I offer a cigarette instead:
"Nah mate, its fuck knows what time, I'm soaked, freezing and need to get on now if I'm going to be able to get enough money for tonight."
I stop him, almost desperately as I realise how ridiculous I'm being. I explain I actually have the money, and ask him to join me if only, I think privately, so I can buy some time out of my head. I scramble out the cash and he sits slowly down next to me, a mixture of annoyance, relief and thanks in his eyes as I create two clumsily rolled cigarettes.
For 2 minutes we sit in silence before I muster up the courage to ask:
"So, how - and forgive me for asking so bluntly - did you end up like this? I always see you and shamefully never asked..."
He takes a long drag on his cigarette. I would love to say it was for dramatic effect but mainly because my pathetic attempt at a rollie is proving a stumbling block.
"How old are you?" Mark finally asks me.
A moment of silence before I bluster:
"Though, I'm sure I look more old and haggard at the moment," a great joke.
Ignoring me he continues: "I'm a dad you know? 19. Her mother and I were together for a few years and it was completely unplanned. So y'know I was doing long hours and working for them. Then, one day I come home and see her with a different guy.
He jumps up bollock naked and tells me to get out, they don't need me as they've got him. He jumps me and kicks the fuck out of me.
I go mad, start partying y'know, drinking and taking drugs."
"Did you not fight it?" I ask.
"How?" He rolls his eyes before continuing:
"I have a large family and they looked after me as best they could but I was drinking and, y'know, partying and shit. I tried to see my daughter a few times but I wasn't allowed.
One weekend I'm out with my best mates, they're also my cousins, big family y'know? But my best mates. It was a great weekend, they were, like, really trying to cheer me up y'know? Anyway, end of the weekend comes - they drop me off. Next thing I fucking hear is that there is a car crash."
He pauses, again fumbling with my matches and his cigarette.
"They're dead. All of them, all at fucking once.
I spiralled, naturally. Taking more drugs and drinking more. I've got it under control now, just about, but I'm still an alcoholic. I dabble [with drugs] now, but I'm under control. I was in and out of rehab for a year or so and decided the best thing to do was to leave London. That was 4 years ago now. I wanted to start my life again, and just needed to pick a place.
So I got my shit together in a rucksack and got on the train. Fell asleep and woke up in Brighton station. That was 4 years ago. Since then I've had jobs here and there including some great work on a boat in the Marina where he let me sleep on the boat as well. But once the job was done I was homeless again, and back on the drink and drugs.
All I want to do is start my life again, and the days where it feels like I'm ready to do it I feel trapped."
"Say... Fucking... Say you get a hostel right? As soon as you get a job you have to pay a 250-350 quid 'service charge'. Now this is impossible to afford on a part time job, which is all you're going to get in my position. You also got to live with people like them who drink and take drugs y'know? It's a fucking trigger, and it's just easier sometimes to be homeless."
"Why don't you stay in the PSPO [Public Space Protection Order] Camp?"
"They're feral man. Mad. Way too much for me to be involved with. Since the PSPO's though the coppers have been taking all our stuff. Our cardboard, blankets, sleeping bags, everything. It's becoming too much y'know?"
I struggle at this point. I don't really know what to offer. I give him another fiver and set aside a small amount of baccy, some filters and some rizla for him. Hand it over and hope that it's something.
"Thanks mate." He says, genuine thanks too by the sounds of it.
"Anyway, I need to crack on, take it easy mate ok? And thank you. Really.”
He shakes my hand warmly. Suddenly:
“Hey! Hey! 'Scuse me, you got any change?"
And off he shuffles after two strangers staggering out of the nearest bar.
I get why he ran after the two at the end by the way - do not judge him ill. I understand the drive. Get as much money as possible, get warm, get off the streets for multiple days in a hostel. Survive.
Let’s spread some goodwill this year all and as the man says in the video at the top: “Wake the *&^% up.”
Let’s make 2019 a good year, a creative year, but a kind year. God knows, we are going to have some hugely divisive politics thrown at us this year, so let’s try and hold it together and remember we all need to help our fellow human.
Love to you all.