The kindness of strangers

Nick Stirk, who is homeless in Yorkshire, describes life on the streets, in hostels and precarious flats, and he says the ultimate kindness is to give the homeless a voice

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Just because you are homeless does not mean you are friendless. It just means that you become a different part of society – the underclass. Not having a fixed abode means we are not on the electoral list and therefore have been disenfranchised from political society – not that we would vote for any of the major parties. I am not saying they are responsible for people being homeless but they certainly do not help those who are.

Making new friends is easy as most will be in a similar boat. They will tell you the best places to sleep, find free food and probably give you a rollie – though maybe little else. They are not going to be your BFF so you still need to watch your back and not lose your street smarts.

Probably the most soul-destroying part of living on the streets is dealing with the mindless repetition of officialdom – the endless filling in of forms and the endless waiting for money. Godot is more likely to turn up than some of the things you are waiting for.

There used to be a bit of doggerel about two men in a prison cell. “Two men stood behind prison bars, one looked down and saw mud while the other looked up and saw stars.” I generally look down and it’s not mud I see but gold.

It is surprising how many people drop, lose or simply cannot be bothered to pick up their coins. I often go foraging outside McDonald’s on a weekend very early in the morning as it is an ideal place to find coins. And not only shrapnel. I once found a £20 note near an ATM opposite Maccy D’s.

Living on the streets is often a case of feast or famine. There are days when you have plenty of money followed by weeks without. As Sam Weller said in The Pickwick Papers by Dickens: “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” When I have money I like to spend it in good restaurants and when I have none I tend to haunt places where food is given away free or very cheaply.

It is a fallacy to think that all homeless people are uneducated. I have two degrees

The kindness of strangers happens more than you think. People tell me of occasions when they have woken up in the morning to find cups of coffee and takeaway meals waiting for them by their sleeping bags. Others tell of money tucked into their bags – one of 200 pound coins! When I was down and out in London I spent my days and nights at a bus stop and a girl from a shop nearby used to bring me cups of tea and a takeaway owner once gave me £5.

Windfalls don’t only happen in summer or autumn. I was once passing a bank’s ATM and there was £20 in notes sticking out. So of course I made a rapid withdrawal and hurriedly walked away. I am now a member of the Hole in the Wall gang! Apparently there is only a 30 second window before the ATM swallows it up so this only happens rarely but it doesn’t stop me from looking at all the ATMs I pass just in case lightning does strike twice.

I often go into my local Tesco Express at 6am to get a paper. Because the shop has just opened the floors are unswept and I often find coins on the floor. I always put these in the donations box – which just happens to be in my front pocket. I once found a £5 note there. This too went into my donations pocket.

It is a fallacy to think that all homeless people are uneducated. I have two degrees and I know others who are more educated than I am. Why do clever people do stupid things? Well, if Einstein could wander round in a holey jumper and carpet slippers then I am perfectly happy to swan around in hand-me-down clothes.

Homeless people find refuge in the weirdest of places. I know one chap who used to live in a cave. I have known others who used to do that but that was in China. Others live in tents, outbuildings and shop doorways. When I was in London I spent my nights in an ATM room – a cold, hard, concrete floor but better than a bus stop, which was open to the elements. There is a block of flats near where I live and for several months there have been a couple of mattresses lying outside. Last week a homeless man decided to make it his temporary kipping place. Days later the local authority acted. You’re right – it removed the mattresses.

Many homeless people do not stay in one place but travel the length and breadth of Britain. Not exactly The Road to Wigan Pier as there are no longer spikes – workhouses – on the way but if you are of no fixed abode then there is no particular reason to put down roots in one place. Some people say that the town where I currently reside is one of the best in the country for the homeless. There is a hostel that can take in about 16 homeless for extended periods of time. This is certainly a blessing, although most people who go there endlessly complain about all the rules. To them it is more hostile than hostel.

Some landlords won’t take benefit claimants, most require a bond and if you go through a letting agency you have to pay at least £70. I am currently staying in a B&B run by, shall I say, Mrs Peter Rachman. My shower has not worked for nine months, the electricity keeps going off, as does the fire alarm. My room is very dirty – even the cobwebs have cobwebs! Quentin Crisp once said that after three years the dust does not get any worse. I only have another three months to find out if that is true.

There is a high turnover of residents and fights are not uncommon. The chap who has the room next to me was arrested for growing medicinal herbs and the restaurant downstairs was closed on health and safety grounds.

While writing this I have just heard that I am about to be evicted. Ah well, back on the streets again. My landlady is a Buddhist and wouldn’t hurt a fly but tenants and her cheap East European workforce are a different matter. I have seen her hit a tenant with her handbag and her staff have to work all hours for minimum wage and if she puts them up in one of her hotels then she has well and truly got them by the financial short and curlies.

She wrote me a letter saying I had to leave immediately. Fortunately I went to the council and they told me her letter had no legal validity and that she needed to give me two months notice. She is doing this to everybody as she wants to sell up.

A lot of churches organise food banks or give free meals to the homeless. Often they will give free refreshments before a service. Some people might say that this is just a ruse to get people in to hear a sermon but did not Jesus do this in the feeding of the 5,000? Well, we poor and homeless do not complain. There are also Christian rehab centres. I once went to one but did’t stay long because of their petty rules and Christian-lite programme. Imagine an OAP having to ask permission to leave a room or go to the toilet.

When you run out of tobacco the first thing you do is empty the ashtray

Some people regard the homeless as having a contagious disease – a bit like Ebola. A social worker friend of mine who helps run a day centre for the homeless and vulnerable once told me a story about why a certain man regularly gave £100 donations. He was just about to enter his church when he saw a tramp lying on the steps. He carefully crept around the man as did all the other parishioners. The tramp later entered the church, walked down the aisle touching people on the shoulder as he passed by. Most people recoiled in horror. Then when he got to the front he took off his coat and the congregation saw that he was a priest. He didn’t have to give a sermon that day because he already had! Some of the people who help the homeless would not call themselves Christians but neither would they call themselves do-gooders. They care and show compassion for those who need it and are conscious of the fact that “there but for the grace of God go I”.

Most homeless people smoke. Having lived in China for ten years I was shocked by how much they cost here. This is why most people use hand-rolled tobacco and Amber Leaf seems to be the number one choice. Once you run out of baccy you are left with no choice but to trawl the streets looking for dog ends. The only ones you do not pick up are the ones by lamp posts – for obvious reasons! When you run out of tobacco the first thing you do is empty the ashtray. Your tobacco is now second generation, or 2G for short. As the week progresses your dog-ends become dog-ends, or 3G. And so it goes on until payday and then you are back to 1G.

A typical week food wise would be breakfast at a town centre church where a free meal awaits Monday to Saturday. There is tea, coffee and fruit juice followed by cereals, porridge, soup and a ham and cheese toastie with a poached egg on top. For lunch Monday to Friday there is a two or three course meal for £1 at a drop-in centre for the homeless and vulnerable. Tea, coffee and juice are free. On a Thursday evening there is a free two-course meal there. On Sunday afternoon there is another free meal at a community centre. On Sunday morning a happy-clappy church group meets at the local cinema and there is free coffee, tea, fruit juice and toast or crumpets and fruit before the service. I have to admit that I always have the former but not always the latter!

There is a strange mix of people who go to one of the places I frequently haunt. One chap is ex-French Foreign Legion, another an alcoholic jockey, another a tattooed barber. There is the usual mix of paedophiles, rapists, alcoholics, drug dealers, con men, thieves and smackheads. And of course there is me. Dear reader, I leave it up to your imagination as to which category or categories I belong to. Perhaps the oddest of people is Rudi. According to him he is an American by way of Jamaica and is a familiar sight on the streets with his dreadlocks now fashionably tinted with green paint. He frequently addresses women with the term “Hello darling” or, if they are blonde, “Hello blondie”. He claims to be able to control the weather by staring at the sky and also claims to be God, which does not endear him to the local vicar.

I like to think that honesty is my default setting. I once found a handbag in a doorway one Sunday morning. There was a phone in it and some cigarettes but no money. I put it into a plastic bag and took it off to the police station (I certainly wasn’t going to be seen carrying a handbag on my arm). I also recently found some car keys under a bench outside the Halifax. A “friend” suggested I go the nearest multi-storey carpark and start beeping away! I didn’t and after waiting for an hour for the owner to return I handed them in to a policeman’s safe hands.

There was only one time that I regretted my honesty policy. One morning at breakfast a chap at the table next to me left. I noticed that he had left a tin of tobacco on the table. I shouted to him: “Oi, you’ve left something behind.” He came up to me and said: “For future reference the name is Matthew.” He picked up the tin and moved away. I felt like saying to him: “Matthew you’ve left something else behind – your manners!” Perhaps this was a case of the unkindness of strangers!

Perhaps the worst thing about being homeless is that we do not have a voice, or rather no one hears us. We are a voice crying in the wilderness with no one to hear. Dear kind stranger, will you be our voice for us and make us heard in the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land, which is home to all of us, even we society’s underclass? As the Dalai Lama once said: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

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