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Please, I beg of you, let me give you something for nothing

Most days we are rung at Thames Reach by somebody who wants to help the homeless; it is really rather gratifying. Media bods come with propositions intended to shed fresh light on ‘The Plight of the Homeless’. The Big Idea often involves them sleeping rough on the street to give a ‘down and dirty’ account of what it is like to be a rough sleeper. Quite often they are genuinely unaware that a proposal of this type is put to us at least once a month. Sometimes the call is from a designer with a new invention to pilot, such as a collapsible tent for rough sleepers or a particularly warm body bag to keep them snug during those winter nights. As the vast majority of rough sleepers aspire to a bricks and mortar solution rather than a life under canvas or in a sleeping bag, we tend to give them short shrift. Some approaches are from, to be frank, cranks.

On this particular morning I seem to have been reached by a Premier League crank. The conversation went as follows:

‘Mr Swain, my name is Mr Paley and I want to give my house to the homeless for five years’
That’s very kind of you Mr Paley, what will this cost us?
‘Nothing’.
‘I’m sorry Mr Paley, I’m not with you’.
‘Mr Swain, I want eight homeless people to live in my house free of charge’.
‘Mr Paley, I appreciate your interest but most homeless people would prefer not to share a bedroom; I can’t see this working’.
‘My house has eight bedrooms Mr Swain, please come and take a look, your ex-Treasurer Terry Hitchcock has told me about your organisation and I want to help you.’
‘OK Mr Paley, perhaps we could meet at your house next week….’

Dispiritingly, the Treasurer’s name was correct. To preserve good relations with a former Board member I now had to embark on something called a Wild Goose Chase.

The address was in an extremely posh part of South London. The house had wrought iron gates, a gravel drive and a blue plaque on the side bearing notice that a famous military figure had lived, and died, in the house. Mr Paley was diffidently polite and accompanied me on the journey around his house which, in my terms, was a mansion. He explained that his wife had spotted the house from the road and fallen in love with it. He had bought it and never lived in it. These things happen. Perhaps he would sell it one day, but in the meantime he wanted the homeless to benefit. There were chandeliers in most rooms, antique furniture scattered throughout, crisp bed linen and deep carpets. At various points Mr Paley had to attend to his mobile. Then his face became grimly serious and large sums were tersely bandied about before, with an apology, he returned his attention to me.

Of course, I knew it wouldn’t work. I pictured eight unsupervised homeless people in this most beautiful of houses. Swinging from the chandeliers was just one of many possible exploits that could be visualised with little difficulty.

Back at the office it occurred to us that there was a way through it. With Mr Paley’s permission, we could let the house commercially and use the income stream to fund one of our employment projects. Mr Paley expressed quiet approval and our legal representatives set about putting in place an appropriate agreement.

Some three weeks later Mr Paley rang again.

‘I’m sorry Mr Swain but my neighbour has unexpectedly made me an offer on the house which I have decided to accept.’

It was a blow, but these things happen and I had already told myself that it was always too good to be true. But Mr Paley had another surprise in store.

‘I don’t go back on my word Mr Swain, so I would therefore be most grateful if you could give me a figure commensurate to the amount of money you would have received should you have let my house commercially over a period of five years’.

The next conversation felt, by some way, the hardest. A colleague diligently contacted a number of estate agents and, as they say, did the math. The figure she arrived at was £163,000 – and that was at the bottom end. I’ve done the fund-raising course and know the theory around making the pitch: don’t prevaricate, boldly name your figure, first speaks loses. But I still can’t do it without a nervous stammer and a feeling that I am an impertinent charlatan. It went thus:

‘Mr Paley, we are entirely honourable at Thames Reach and this really is the figure though it seems very high to me and I quite understand if…..’

Mr Paley was quick to put me out of my misery.

‘Mr Swain, I have two things to say; firstly I know that everyone working with homeless people is honourable’ (Dear Reader: I can see the thought bubble above your head: it says, this man is clever, but he has led a sheltered life). Secondly, would you be prepared for me to pay you in two instalments?’

My magnanimity knew no bounds and I graciously accepted the two payments arrangement.

There was one further meeting with Mr Paley to finalise the agreement. Earnestly I explained to him that we would give him regular updates on the service his money was supporting which we should be delighted to take him to visit. How about, I prattled, a formal report on progress every six months and perhaps some pictures of participants? It wasn’t working. He was showing signs of exasperation and suddenly expostulated:

‘Mr Swain, this morning I was meeting with young men and women in my company who think that being given a bonus of £30,000 on top of a very substantial salary is a derisory acknowledgement of their worth – please, I beg of you, let me give you something for nothing!’

We both felt shaken by his outburst and I left shortly after. We shook hands self-consciously and I have never met him again.

Over the last few years Mr Paley’s money has helped hundreds of homeless men and women increase their confidence and self-esteem, develop new skills and increase their employability. Many of them are now in work; some with Thames Reach. Mr Paley receives a yearly letter from Thames Reach but remains resolutely detached.

We can only hope that in these times when greed unencumbered by conscience seems in the ascendancy, leading to the subsidisation of duck houses, servants’ quarters and non-existent mortgages that there may be similar gestures from other enigmatic angels with a strange desire that flies defiantly in the face of the zeitgeist. Namely, without fuss or fanfare, to be able to give something for nothing.

Jeremy Swain June 2009

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