There’s a guy I pass every morning on my way to work. I don’t know his name, age wise I’m guessing somewhere in his thirties. Possibly younger. Sleeping rough will age you pretty quick I’d imagine. Most people pass him, don’t stop, too busy, morning commute, worries of their own. I get that. Occasionally I do the same.
About a fortnight ago, I saw a couple of guys shout a ton of abuse at him. I didn’t challenge them. I wish I was brave enough but I’m not. But I gave the homeless guy a couple of quid and muttered some kind of platitudinous nonsense about hanging in there. Before I could get up, the guy shook me by the hand and thanked me and told me to have a good day.
Anyway, I make a point now of checking in on him each morning. He doesn’t beg. He doesn’t shout abuse or stink of drink. He just sits quietly, staring at the reconstruction of our city’s transport hub. I stop by, wish him well, and give him a couple of quid or a coffee from the Starbucks next door.
Over the weekend I mentioned this guy to my wife. We know full well how easy it is to find yourself in that situation. A couple of years back, through no fault of our own, we were evicted because our landlord had been caught cheating on his partner and was forced to move out of the family home. He’d grown up in the house we rented and was able to evict us (and our 9 year old daughter) on grounds of his own impending destitution.
Nowhere comes up for rent at Christmas. The local authority said they could put us up in a hostel thirty miles away. Our bond turned out to be next to useless as the landlord hadn’t registered it with the deposit scheme as he hadn’t informed his mortgage company of his renting out to us.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, a kindly friend of a friend put us up in her granny flat for 6 months. She didn’t know us, met us the once when she heard of our impending destitution and put us up. Charged us a pathetic fee for the electric and water and said we could stay as long as we wanted. An act of kindness that I cannot possibly ever come close to repaying and one I will never forget.
It’s all too easy to slip through the safety net now that the government has cut the webbing. Claimants are scroungers, benefits are a burden to the taxpayer and the system is now so wedded to a labyrinthine set of rules and regulations that it’s easier to be sanctioned for being over paid than it is to make a successful claim in the first place.
Anyway, I digress. I mentioned the homeless guy to my wife and last night, she made up a small hamper to take to him. Nothing fancy, just some fruit, a couple of sandwiches and some bottles of water. So I give this to him this morning but I don’t want to just hand him a bag of food and fuck off. Least I can do is find out a little about him, shoot the shit for a second.
6 months ago, Lee had a job. And a flat. And one day he got ill. Phoned in sick. Presumed it a stomach bug. It didn’t get any better. Collapses at home, gets rushed to hospital. After a few days it’s revealed to be Crohn’s disease. There are some long term implications for him and some immediate complications to try to remedy. He spends 10 weeks in hospital. During which time he loses his job and his landlord evicts him for non-payment of rent. Eventually well enough to leave hospital, he discovers that his life has turned to shit.
The local authority decides he has made himself “intentionally homeless” meaning they don’t have to look after him. The DWP decide likewise. So Lee’s life is entirely dependent on people handing him food and money. He isn’t so much caught in the cycle as kicked out of it completely.
We used to give a fuck about people in this country. And now we don’t. We buy the occasional Big Issue, text a fiver to Comic Relief and tell ourselves we’ve done our bit. The fifth richest country in the world lets people die on the streets because it’s easier for a junior civil servant to hide behind a piece of procedure than do something human.
I’m a prick, trust me. I wanted to walk away from my chat feeling like I’d done something to help this guy out for a few hours. I walked away in tears, disgusted at my own inadequacy, shocked by his tacit acceptance of this unnecessary cruelty. What do we do?
This isn’t Tory bashing. This is the system. And it’s in this context that a Ken Loach film about victims of that system can win the Palme D’Or. The safety net is non-existent. People hide behind their mortgages, their holiday brochures and they kid themselves that they’re immune. Nothing can touch them. And it’s bullshit. With the rolling back of the social security program there has in turn come a reduction in people’s sympathy for those less fortunate than themselves. When we reduce acts of kindness to the pressing of a red button on your TV remote then it’s fucked. Empathy is just weakness leaving the bank account.
And then, I swear to God, this happened in front of me. I’m crossing the High Street down by the Philharmonic. A squirrel runs into the road in rush hour. It darts in between all the vehicles like it’s a cartoon. Before finally coming to rest before the front wheel of a Cardiff Bus at a red light. It sits there shuddering, exhausted. Soon the lights will change and it will surely be crushed. I’m screaming at the squirrel like a lunatic from the roadside. And it just won’t move. So I run away. I can’t bear to be around. I literally sprint 100 yards over into Custom House Street and I’m welling up.
Maybe the squirrel will have come to its senses. Maybe it made its way safely to the pavement once I’d stopped screaming. Or maybe, like Lee, like thousands of Lees across this rich and pleasant land, it sits there and waits for the inevitable.