He thrusts his hand towards me as soon as I emerge from Old Street underground station, fingers curled in a half-grip, long dirty nails. ‘Please give me some change’. It’s good English with a familiar Eastern European inflection. He’s stumbling along beside me now and he’s already calculated that I won’t be giving him any money. ‘What about a kebab – a chicken kebab’. We stop to talk and I look at him more closely. He has the most terrible hair-cut – a real Gulag special - and is filthy, really filthy and looks half-starved. He tells me his name is Jan Dudek and he is Polish. We move on to the kebab house and he seems strangely embarrassed that he must resort to this – begging a stranger to buy him some food. ‘A small kebab will do – just a small one with garlic sauce’.
Inside the kebab house the two young Turkish men nod sagely as they impassively slice pieces from the slab of chicken meat rotating on the spit. They know him well and solemnly advise me not to give him any money. ‘It’s not good for him – he’s with a bad crowd now. All he does is drink, drink, drink. He used to be a motor cycle courier you know, but something went wrong. We keep an eye on him’. I believe them. Despite the view which some newspapers positively luxuriate in that, nowadays, nobody cares, the experience of our outreach teams is that rough sleepers are frequently ‘kept an eye on’ by people living and working nearby. I’m morosely reflecting on the paradox that most members of the public also have little idea how many services there are for rough sleepers when one of the Turkish men, on cue, says ‘Is there nothing out there for these people? He needs help’.
Through the window I can see him sitting cross-legged on the pavement, head nodding, body suddenly jerking forward as he dozes off momentarily. Occasionally he leans forward to scratch a suppurating sore on his ankle. A bespectacled man on a bike stops and places a few coins on his coat. Seconds later, a second man who has just scurried past returns, extracts some coins from a small bag and adds them to the pile. Given that Jan is not even actively begging, this is an impressive return.
Outside, I hand him his chicken kebab along with a free can of coca cola donated by the kebab house and ask him why he isn’t in a hostel or a winter shelter. His answer is incoherent and, I suspect, deliberately opaque. It seems that he has been visited by outreach teams before including Thames Reach’s. I offer to ring the outreach team here and now so that he can be in a winter shelter by the evening but am not surprised to hear that Jan is not quite ready. ‘But maybe in three hours’ he tells me. So I leave him a card with the number to ring in the almost certain knowledge that it will shortly be blowing in the wind.
Back in the subway to the underground I count the empty cans of super-strength lager scattered around, the ones that Jan and his group have almost certainly been consuming. There is around half a dozen discarded cans of Kestrel Super which I regard with an especially baleful eye. In 2008, driven by the distressing number of service users dying prematurely as a consequence of their addiction to super-strength lagers, Thames Reach made a formal complaint to the Portman Group which represents the responsible drinks companies. Our case was that it was illogical and unacceptable to produce super-strength alcohol in a can of a size (500ml) which meant that consuming the contents of the can took the drinker over the daily safe-drinking threshold as advised by the government of 3-4 units of alcohol for a man or 2-3 units for a woman. Our complaint was not upheld but the complaints panel did have some criticism for the producers of Kestrel Super. The panel was of the view that the packaging of the product included too many references to the strength of the drink and that this, bizarrely, was reinforced ‘by the prominent stern image of a kestrel on the can’s front’. They requested changes to the packaging. I concluded from the scene in the subway that consumer behaviour had yet to be affected by the kestrel image becoming less stern or prominent.
Two days later I ask our outreach team that covers the area close to Old Street station whether they had received a call from Jan. I was not expecting them to say that he had been in contact, after all, I had witnessed the Great British Public giving Jan the money for at least a couple of cans of Kestrel Super without him even needing to raise a grubby palm. Yet I still found myself wincing with disappointment when they confirmed that no call had been received.
I feel I need to go back and see if Jan is there. I’m brooding about him and his plight, feeling irritated and angry in a purposeless way. My thoughts are malevolent. I’m frustrated that good people think that throwing a few coins on a coat can help someone and by the lack of public awareness of the services available to someone like Jan. Then my thoughts turn to the companies producing the super-strength lagers and ciders. They know that the only people purchasing these pernicious brews are the heavily addicted, yet still most refuse to end production.
I wonder about Jan’s family back in Poland. Have they any idea that their son or husband is lying in the gutter, living inside a loused-up overcoat, drinking himself to death? I’m reminded of the words of my colleague Megan who leads Thames Reach’s London Reconnection Team which provides a voluntary, supported return home for Central and Eastern Europeans who have fallen into destitution. ‘Get them to ring their mothers. Once I can hear them talking to mama I know they will be going home. It’s about love, obligation, shame or a mix or all three’.
I don’t think it will be easy to get Jan to ring his mother but I have asked the outreach team to see if they can find him over the coming week. Today when I was thinking of him my thoughts became doom-laden and apocalyptic as they do sometimes when I am feeling stressed and anxious about someone or something. Does that happen to you? I saw him stumbling along an underground tunnel and slumping to the floor, back-resting against a refuse bin, clearly inebriated. There was a fluttering and a small bird of prey, a kestrel, came to rest on his chest. It steadied itself, with its talons pressing into his black coat before stretching out its neck to pluck out his eyes.