‘It was the mini-milks that did me’ explained the bespectacled Raymond. I had asked him about the highs and lows of his time sleeping rough on the streets of central London. You won’t be surprised to hear that Raymond’s reminiscences covering the highs were somewhat on the thin side, whereas the lows…..
‘There were five lads and none of them could have been more than fourteen. They said they were going to get me a surprise from McDonalds on The Strand. I hadn’t eaten for more than a day and was hoping for a Big Mac. Instead they came out with a tray of those little milks for the teas and coffees with the tops all peeled off and threw the lot over me. I was soaked and as it was milk I knew it would smell too before much longer. I went off to the Passage (a day centre) to plead for a change of clothes. I felt at my lowest. It was a bad feeling having the piss taken out of me by kids.’
In my experience the petty indignities suffered by people sleeping rough often leave psychological scars that are far more painful than the wounds received through the random acts of physical violence which are also part of the rough sleeping experience. Pre-meditated humiliation meted out by those apparently devoid of conscience, reminding you that you are utterly powerless and in the eyes of some, less than human; what can bite deeper than that? When I hear a story like Raymond’s I find myself anxiously, obsessively, searching back through my memory to find an antidote - an example to counter the mortifying image of a person with nowhere to turn being shamefully degraded.
Thames Reach has a London cab, the famous Hackney Carriage which we use to ferry rough sleepers off of the street to hostels. It has our name on the side along with the logo of our sponsors. It looks exactly like any other London cab apart from not having a registration plate to the rear that proper taxis are required to carry, or the familiar light at the front that is activated when the cab is empty to indicate that it can be hailed. Occasionally we get into a spot of bother with members of the public who are not always convinced by our tale that the cab is for the exclusive use of the homeless. Returning to the cab one freezing night at Piccadilly Circus following a brief foray in search of a rough sleeper in need of a blanket, we found a well-heeled women sitting in the back. It took fifteen minutes of beseeching to coax her from the back seat as she listened sceptically to our description of the homeless underworld we inhabited, clearly convinced that this was a ruse to avoid having to go south of the river.
Back in the 1980s when I was a street outreach worker we had to rely on hailing cabs in order to get rough sleepers with mobility problems to hostels for the homeless. This was a stressful affair as, with depressing frequency, the approaching cab sped away once the driver had spotted the sorry state of one of his potential customers. Indeed, on occasions arms were nearly wrenched out of sockets as, in vain, we attempted to retain our grip on door handles to prevent the driver from rectifying his mistake and disappearing into the night.
One balmy spring evening we came across Billy Rugg. Billy was a gold card rough sleeper, one of a group known as ‘the Famous Faces’, rough sleepers entrenched in a damaging lifestyle on the street who we were particularly desperate to help indoors because of their poor health and vulnerability. Billy was in a terrible state, clearly intoxicated and pitifully confused. His trousers were sagging with faeces and urine. We checked that there was a space for him at a hostel in Covent Garden and, grimly determined, we set out to hail a taxi. For a while the usual pattern repeated itself with the taxi’s indicator light giving us hope before being abruptly cancelled as the dishevelled Billy came into view and the taxi swerved away from the curb. Eventually a cab stopped and, tenaciously hanging onto the open door, we bundled the leaking Billy inside.
As we wended our way towards Covent Garden the mild reek inside the cab grew to a nauseous stench and I began to feel pangs of guilt, knowing that this was a smell that would not later be erased with a wave of the hand. Eventually we reached our destination and, gripping Billy under the arms, we heaved him out of the cab, leaving behind a damp seat for the delectation of the next customer. Barely being able to look the cab driver in the eye I nervously thrust a note through the cab window and prepared to beat a quick retreat. ‘That’s OK mate – no charge tonight’. I was struggling to make sense of this response and asked him to repeat himself. ‘You lads are doing a great job getting granddad off the street – see it as a donation’. He drove off before I could mumble my thanks - and that was that.
Over the next few weeks we frequently found ourselves mulling over Billy Rugg’s epic journey and its surprising finale. We wondered how long it would have taken for the smell in the cab to disappear, speculated about what had motivated the driver and felt abashed that we had formerly joked that all cabbies were racists from Romford. ‘I had that Billy Rugg in the back’ we mimicked in true Private Eye style ‘and, my god, he was full of shit!’ But, most of all, we drew sustenance from this unexpected act of kindness from a stranger on our side, on the side of the homeless.