In our town, as I grew up, I was never aware of anyone sleeping rough.
Then, still living in the same town in the 60s and 70s we, the mums and dads, and the youth, and the authorities and small businesses on our main street all knew David.
In those days the word ‘tramp’ was used – but not in a derogatory way – it was simply common parlance for someone who had no home and looked unkempt. The shopkeepers gave David food on a regular basis, and hot drinks, and he was friendly with the bus drivers and conductors because he had a wash in the public toilets adjacent to the tiny transport office.
Today David, who refused to go into a hostel or B&B, saying he liked it the way it was, would be considered to have some form of mental health problem. In those days he was just a character who the populace accepted and were in some strange way fond of.
Last winter was a severe one and still, now in the 21st century, the streets of our town are not experiencing just one rough sleeper, but dozens who beg with a plastic cup outside the supermarkets
However, wherever you live the warning is out. A lot of these people use begging as their way of life, and are organised to share their ‘patches’ with others. Don’t give them money it will go on alcohol or drugs. That message comes from the media.
Who are these very human and distressed people? The answer has been searched for – and here in Manchester our elected Mayor, Andy Burnham, has their needs very much in mind, starting a fund and donating 15% of his salary to it. But after many months of looking at what is being done and what should be done,even he, says that the whole scenario is very complicated.
I don’t know as much now about who they are as I did before I retired many years ago. Then I knew them, or some of them, on a very personal level. I knew about their past lives and their families. Above all I have known about their hopes for something better.
At the teenage level they come into college (alongside a majority of level-headed, well-adjusted young men and women) with a grudge against all authority. Often from broken homes or with parents who abuse alcohol, drugs – and their children.
The ones who manage to break the vicious circle through strength and opportunity are the lucky ones. Sadly a small proportion may very well be thrown out by their parents and become the sofa-surfers who cannot afford to rent a room and eventually end up sleeping in a doorway or underneath the viaduct arches.
Others have come into my life as strong men who have joined the armed forces and found themselves in hellholes, witnessing and being part of violence which has left them agonized and traumatized.
Some I have met when they have studied through long-distance learning courses. In prison, aiming for a qualification in English, sending their assignments for correcting and comments.
Yes I have met some of them as they have ended their sentence and sought me out in college. One of them gave me a gift I still treasure. It was a scroll which when opened proved to be a copy of Deciderata by Max Ehrman
However, there they are, out of jail, onto the street, looking at the sky, basic clothes on their back, a miserable hand-out of money in their pockets – a record which will inevitably affect every job application they make. Where will they end up? Their rehabilitation into society is an uphill task, leaving them desperate for a roof, food an a legitimate income.
But what are all these human beings really like? My own experience – working in outreach centres, alcoholics units, mental health hospitals, with drug dependent college students, with immigrants trying to learn our language and find a job – has sent me down paths I would never otherwise have trodden.
I have met doctors, solicitors, housewives, engineers, labourers, teachers – people from every walk of life who have told me their stories and how they ended on the streets at some point.
So when we see people who we cannot be sure we should trust, can’t decide whether to give them money, don’t know whether they are traumatized members of our Forces or immigrants, or mentally ill, alcoholics or drug addicts, or even petty criminals; when we wonder if they really are homeless, I am one of the onlookers who knows that they are, Whatever else, human beings with feelings and memories and aspirations.
Governments and local authorities are having to face up at last to this increasing heartbreaking, and dangerous, disaster throughout the land.
It is said that we are all five bad decisions away from ending up on the streets.
Nothing I have said will help any of us to know whether to put our money into the plastic cups. It won’t help us to detect the malingerers from those in need. We can keep our eyes open to see what governments are doing to deal with it all. We can campaign and use our vote.
And we can acknowledge that There but for the Grace of God go I.