Down on Skid Row

Salford-born poet and novelist David Constantine admits it was writer’s curiosity as well as altruism that led him to help homeless people in the 1960s

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I began to learn about Skid Row – how people get there, how they live there – in the summer of 1968. I was 24, a postgraduate student at Oxford. Two years married, we were expecting our first child. We could look forward. And a couple of times a week, I went down to the Simon Community shelter, between the railway line and a cemetery, and talked to the men who had come in off the streets for food and tea, some company and a bed.

I wondered about my motives, and had to admit that curiosity was among them. Very lucky myself, I wanted to know about people who weren’t. Having admitted that, I tried not to let it bother me. I saw at once that the Simon Community was doing some good, to which in a small way I could contribute.

The essence of its philosophy was the acceptance, without judgement, of one human being by another. That seemed to me a good start. Then I didn’t mind admitting that I liked being there, I liked sitting face to face across a table with a man who wanted to talk, who wanted listening to. Yes, I pitied him; yes, I wished him out of it, into somewhere better; but also, listening, how I learned!

I had been writing – very badly – poems and stories for seven or eight years by then. And coming back to our decent lodgings, I wrote down what I had heard in the shelter, as exactly as possible – not to use, but to learn, to try to get things right, as near to the truth as I could. And I did the same for a further 12 years after that summer of 1968, in one notebook after another.

The Simon Community was founded by Anton Wallich-Clifford in 1963. A probation officer in London, he became especially concerned about that third of the prison population who when discharged had nowhere to go to. These were the NFAs, the no-fixed-abodes. They slept rough, they spent their days and nights on Skid Row, they drank the cheapest stuff they could get hold of.

One night a week Wallich-Clifford dressed himself as a down-and-out and on the old bombsites and in the newer ruins he joined those who really were down and out. He sat with them as though he were one of them. And when the meths was passed round and it came to him, in the end he forced himself to drink it because, he said, it was all they had to share with him. I heard him speak once in Oxford, then again in Durham, where I had my first job. He was a religious man, and the community and movement he founded and its offshoot, the Cyrenians, were named after Simon of Cyrene who carried Christ’s cross.

In Durham I got to know two or three others who had heard Wallich-Clifford and wanted to act. We went out a couple of times a week, between 11pm and midnight, into some derelict properties along the river awaiting demolition and “development”. A few men kipped in there after drinking enough to get through another night. We had torches, some bread and a flask of soup, and got to know the risk of rotten or missing floor boards and the stink of soot, fallen plaster, damp mattresses and excrement.

The upstairs rooms had broken windows and fine views of the lit-up cathedral. One man set out his bottles of pills and made little piles of his remaining pennies along the window sill. The police knew us, they knew the men kipping in there and let them be.

We began looking and campaigning for a house, and got one at last, with encouragement and despite opposition, right in the middle of town. It was the old caretaker’s house at a derelict school. It could accommodate seven men and two full-time voluntary workers.

Wallich-Clifford spoke of the “highway of the helpless”, the route up and down the length of Britain that the homeless tramped or hitched or travelled with a warrant. But within any city or district there was a similar helpless movement. Men did the rounds of prison, hospital, Salvation Army, reception centre, the streets, the skip. The regimes varied a bit. A graveyard or a derelict house was no fun in winter. I knew men who towards Christmas would commit some trivial offence in a bid to get off the streets and into jail for a warm few days.

Alarmingly the house in Durham became a place to which the statutory and professional social services would refer homeless people. Amateurs, volunteers, with our half-dozen beds we very soon became necessary.

The regime was simple: no drinking, no violence and attendance at house meetings. Two volunteer-workers lived in. I called by every day and chaired the weekly meeting – at which men whose opinions had perhaps never been asked were induced to have their say. That was one example of the extraordinary idealism of the venture.

The scene then was very different from now. It was mostly men, mostly elderly and their poison was drink, not drugs. Most were local. Durham, a university and cathedral city, had around it many villages where life was poor and getting poorer as the pits closed. But the men who came to us had lost their jobs before the closures. You could drink as much as you liked so long as you turned in for work. Fail to, and you were out and heading steeply towards Skid Row.

That descent could be very quick, whatever your origins or class. I knew an oddball with a posh voice who spouted Latin, a skilled proof-reader, ex-army men still re-living war-time trauma. We accommodated amiable fantasists, schizophrenics, the deluded, the cheated, the grievously disappointed, the terrifyingly lonely. A man living with his sister, she got married, didn’t want him in the house any more. Death of a mother. An accident, a stupidity, a spell in prison, or, very often, illness, especially the kind that lodges in the spirit or in the head.

Telling their life story to anyone who would listen, they would shrug, as much as to say: “Well, there we are”. That moment became, in the repetition, not so much a crisis as the life excuse – why I am as I am. “Nothing can be done about it. At least, not by me.” The energy you need to get off Skid Row (or even out of “ordinary” poverty) exceeds what most well-off people have at their disposal. You need more the lower you get. And you don’t have it. The worst was to see a sharing of hopelessness. It became a malign sort of solidarity, keeping one another down.

Did we do any good? We fixed the men up with healthcare appointments, spoke up for them in court, visited them in jail, helped them get their benefits. And we saw them around a good deal, stopped for a chat. They knew where I lived. Now and then one might call by. They were welcome. We were friends. I liked their company. There were indomitable comedians among them, fabulists who could hold you for hours, and a poet who scribbled ceaselessly in capital letters on any scrap of paper he could find. And there were mild, kindly, attentive men, blaming no one for their ruin but themselves. One found a magnet on the street and gave it to our small daughter. I saw that a man who can give feels better about himself. All that and more, so much more. I think it amounted to something.

I wrote this piece in Oxford, Manchester and Edinburgh. I lost count of the many sleeping rough, young men and women already terribly aged, bedding down in doorways among bottles, needles, rotting food, all manner of filth, in damp bags, waking in the public view and needing help.

And perhaps, relative to the greater numbers, there is less help than there was in the 1970s on the Skid Row I knew something about. Less accommodation perhaps, particularly for the homeless who also need long-term and specialist care. In recent years, the cuts to social services, doing most harm to the poor and the sick, have made a bad situation worse. And if the chief addiction today is drugs, that brings with it the dealing, crime and violence such as I never came across in Oxford or Durham.

It seems to me a very bad scene now. Hope lies in the basic kindness of ordinary people who, despite years of Tory efforts to set “strivers” against “skivers”, don’t like to see their fellow citizens down and out. On the contrary, we want to help. We want to live in a society we are not ashamed of.

David Constantine’s  fifth short story collection The Dressing-Up Box and Other Stories is out now and published by Comma Press (£14.99 hardback)

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