I don't know how it works that £16 can buy a permanent place to stay, but that’s what he said. How could I argue? The poor man was clearly very distressed. It was not even six in the morning and already the homeless were out and about. Being homeless, perhaps he’d been out and about all night and it hadn’t been the kind of night I would have wanted to be outside; not at all.
I came down to London yesterday. I arrived about 8.30pm and stayed overnight with my dear friend from my schooldays. As usual, M and I discussed our latest political adventures, art and music. We shared our news to the gentle accompaniment of his newly discovered ukulele chords while I noodled on the guitar I had restrung for him a couple of weeks ago. We mardled till gone eleven and he called time first. He had to be up at five for work. I had to be up at four to get a train to Paris.
There seems to be a hierarchy of platform information on the Bedford to Brighton line. During the night plans can change in an instant. This was a phenomenon I first encountered when, for a while, I used Leagrave Station regularly. The same phenomenon seems to affect West Hampstead too. It was while I was mulling over the implications of how a train that had been due on Platform One in four minutes had become a train going to another destination in fourteen minutes that my train arrived ... two platforms away. Maybe it serves me right for staring at the half-occluded moon through the screen of tiny, gently falling snowflakes. There was no way of knowing that the new arrival was actually the train I wanted, but there were clues. It was heading in the right direction, there were only two stops to St Pancras International and check-in time was approaching. I ran with my large suitcase and heavy backpack up the stairs to the footbridge, along the footbridge and down on to the new “right” platform. I don’t know why or how this happens. It’s not as though West Hampstead is in the middle of nowhere. I hurdled the gap to mount the train, but the necessary exertion felt rather extreme and, as I sat in the train with the doors closing, gasping to catch my breath and hoping my heart would hold out for the remainder of the day, I realised once again that I am not a fit man; certainly not in the traditional sense and barely in my own imagination in any other sense.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but checking in for international trains is so much more civilised than checking in at an airport. Having ignored those signs that now forbid taking suitcases on the escalators, I was making my way to the Eurostar entrance at St Pancras (with as much optimism as I could muster after a night’s sleep lasting one hour and forty minutes and a fierce attack of insomnia) when I passed a lonely piano. No one was there to tease music from its keys and strings, but I was vaguely aware of a couple just ahead of me - at least without looking directly at them they looked like a couple - until one half, the male half, shuffled my way. I am very familiar with that shuffle. He was coming to ask me for money. Being about to go through security I had taken all my change out of my pockets and put it into the pouch strapped to my waist. Since it was still only 05.45 I hadn’t anticipated meeting any homeless person who needed money and hadn’t got my “buskers pocket” ready with the £10 I usually budget for a day in town. His opening gambit was to hold open his hand and display a modest collection of silver and copper coins. I couldn’t make out everything he said, but he was clearly very distressed. It seemed he had been trying to raise enough money for some sheltered accommodation. In three days all he had managed to beg were these few coins. He seemed convinced that £16 would secure him somewhere to stay tonight and on nights to follow and I think he was facing a deadline, or at least he seemed to feel he was. He said people had been very unkind. He looked as though he’d had a rough time. He had indeed been through the wars. He told me he had been in the army, bomb squad, and had also been shot. He’d fought for his country, it had affected his nerves and he hadn’t expected to be treated with the contempt he’d encountered on his return. He kept pulling at his sleeves which revealed informal tattoos and patches of what looked like red dye. “I’m not an addict,” he declared, “but here’s where I was injured”. I lost his thread at that point as he explained that he was so upset that so few people seemed willing to help. My judgmental side was about to explain that no one should feel obliged or coerced into giving him anything, but looking at the pathetic handful of coins, I broke my usual rule and pulled out my wallet. I fumbled around for a five-pound note and offered it to him. “That’s really kind of you,” he said, “but what good is that going to do me? If I don’t get the sixteen pounds soon I shall lose my bed. I can’t spend another night out in this weather. I can’t stand living in this world where people are so unkind. I’m going to finish it.” He made a slicing motion across his throat with his fingers. I would love to have had enough time to sit him down with a cup of tea and encourage him to share his story, but I needed to get my train. I put the fiver back in my wallet and on impulse pulled out a twenty and pressed it against his hand. “Sixteen pounds is what you need today?” He had been on the verge of weeping when trying to articulate his situation, but now the tears flowed. He grabbed my hand and thanked me over and over. It was reward and embarrassment enough to be able to conjure in my conscience a little hope that this small gesture would help take some of his immediate worries away. I’ve known depression and I’ve known suicidal despair, but I could not begin to imagine what this man had been going through, nor did I really know why he needed that precise amount of money. I know I’ve been lied to by people begging in the streets before, but that isn’t the point and nor does it worry me as much as the fact that they were forced there in the first place by circumstances likely to have been beyond their control. Were I in that position I think I would learn to do and say whatever I could to get through a day if I hadn’t died first. The handshakes clearly weren’t enough. He threw his arms round me and locked me in an embrace. My first thought was alarm. I didn’t want to have to deal with head-lice if he had them. I have enough difficulty communicating in French without having to take a trip to the pharmacie. This thought was quickly quashed by shame. When was the last time this man had been hugged? I pulled him in closer and held him until he was ready to pull away. Still thanking me he started backing away and wishing me a safe and happy journey. I hope he has an hour or two of relief from his burdens. London’s mayor is currently running a campaign in support of relief for rough-sleepers. No one should have to sleep rough. This man has obviously fallen through the net and he cannot be the only one. Two of the last three or four rough sleepers I have met and spoken to are talking about suicide. One of them may even be dead; he had a plan. Just one is too many. Such talk is unlikely to be a coincidence. Homelessness is becoming an increasing problem and is affecting more and more of us. It is an indelible mark on our collective conscience and, unless this nation looks closer to see what is really happening out there, it is going to become much worse. I hope I don’t meet you on the streets.