Sleeping rough is extreme. There you are, lying on a hard pavement or in a shop doorway with, at best, a thin blanket protecting you from the cold and a piece of cardboard insulating you from the rising damp. You know it will disintegrate into a soggy porridge as soon as it begins to rain. Your isolation is profound. Yet frequently, if you are sleeping rough in central London, thousands of people will be swirling around you as they go about their business, walking on by.
Extreme things happen to those sleeping rough. They experience a range of truly remarkable responses to their predicament. Maz slept rough for a few years at London Bridge station in central London. She was seriously addicted to super-strength lager and heroin and had to beg through the day to keep both herself and her boyfriend supplied with these devastatingly damaging drugs, one illegal, the other not. Maz told me that one night she was approached by a smart man in a suit and given what is often referred to by the perpetrators of such acts as ‘a good kicking’. Waking up the next morning bruised and disorientated, she was horrified to find the man in the suit was bending over her. She tensed her body, assuming he had returned for desserts. To her astonishment he had come to apologise. ‘Sorry love, I thought you were a bloke’ he explained. Poor chap, there he was feeling guilty, assuming that the bundle he was kicking around the street was an old tramp and it turned out to be a women! How was he to know? So he returned to show that the age of chivalry is not yet dead. Such are the incomprehensible moral precepts to which some of our fellow citizens adhere.
Thankfully most of the people passing a rough sleeper in the streets don’t behave this way. In fact, many are appalled by the sight of someone sleeping rough. They ponder how such a thing can persist in a rich western democracy in the 21st century. Sometimes they see a person with a sign by them saying, ‘hungry and homeless, please spare some change’ and they drop a few coins into the cap next to it.
My colleagues from our street outreach teams which are out working every night with rough sleepers on the streets of central London frequently point out to me that most people begging are not rough sleepers, though some are living in hostels, squats or other impermanent accommodation. They are painfully aware that nearly all those who beg are seriously addicted to crack cocaine, heroin or alcohol and need the money from concerned members of the public to support this dependency.
Cheryl lives in a Thames Reach hostel where she is thriving. Formerly she lived on the streets near Charing Cross station and had a massive heroin problem. As a beggar, Cheryl was resourceful and persuasive. She had some advantages; the public has a soft spot for homeless women. Cheryl was able to cajole the public passing through Charing Cross station into handing her around £120 a day in spare change. She told me that the biggest single ‘drop’ she ever got was £1,500. Of the passer-by who gave her this windfall she says, ‘I think he must have got a year-end bonus. I couldn’t believe my luck. Of course, it was all gone in four days, spent on heroin for me and my three mates’. At this point in our conversation, Cheryl became a bit pensive and added, ‘I guess I am lucky to be alive’.
Indeed she is. A well known doctor who has been treating homeless drug users in central London for over 20 years told me that the average age of death of her heroin-dependent patients is 31. Looked at with dispassionate objectivity, I can only conclude that it’s incontrovertibly the case that the collective kindness of people giving money to people begging on the street is more damaging than the action of the thug who carried out the brutal kicking of Maz.
As in war, rough sleeping brings out the worst and the best in people. As a street outreach worker in London in the 1980s I met Dorothy Robinson every night on the Strand. She was a wizened, elderly woman who wore a bicycle helmet and her confused manner and deep suspicion of strangers indicated obvious mental health problems and a troubled past. Despite our best efforts, she would not accept our offers to come off of the streets and move into a hostel for the homeless. Slowly, inexorably, Dorothy’s physical health worsened, her face became encrusted with grime, her clothes became shabbier and her personal hygiene deteriorated. In desperation we considered requesting a mental health assessment to be undertaken with a view to having Dorothy ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act and admitted to hospital against her will.
We weren’t the only people speaking to Dorothy on a nightly basis. A member of the public, Joy, was spending time with her, trying to understand what had brought Dorothy to the Strand and seeking a way of encouraging her indoors. Eventually the time came when Joy felt there was enough trust to be able to make her move. She helped Dorothy into the back of her car and drove her, ‘sitting there regally like the Queen’, over to a Thames Reach hostel where there was a single room and a warm bed.
That’s where Dorothy stayed for two years, first sleeping on the floor but eventually using the bed. Joy visited weekly and eventually Dorothy moved on to a care home where she lived in contentment until her death some five years ago. Joy stayed in touch with Dorothy at the care home. She continued to visit her weekly and remained a true friend and doughty advocate. I know all this because Joy rang me and invited me to Dorothy’s funeral where we remembered a life that was extended in length and dramatically heightened in quality by the actions of this determined and compassionate women who wasn’t prepared to see an eccentric lady in a crash helmet waste away and suffer a lonely death on one of London’s busiest streets.
Few of us can be Joys. She’s one of the hidden angels, a person so steeped in humility that she would be genuinely perplexed if you suggested that what she had done was in any way extraordinary. When the next Honours List is released with its usual quota of mediocrities receiving recognition for a lifetime of service to self-aggrandisement, Joy won’t be on it. She is special and we owe her a great deal. For her, walking on by was not an option.