We were walking along, chatting about the new house we hope to move into in a month. The drizzle pattered lightly on the glass roof and water trickled down the central gutter in enclosed red brick alley. Excited, we kept talking. We came across him before we’d seen him.
Stretched out on his back, tight against a shop front, sleeping bag laid upon flattened cardboard, head resting on a rucksack and another neatly placed behind him. Neatness was the impression. Even his long hair and beard were neat. There was no smell, he must find somewhere regular to wash.
We walked on chatting a little less, concerned about the disparity between his existence and ours, we stopped, talked about him, hoping he was safe, had he eaten? We walked back and gave him some money for food. He politely thanked us, said he preferred food, but then there were days he only got coffee and chocolate. I said he could save money given for such dire days and this began a chat about his situation. He was safe down here in this rural town, this position was dry, he was tucked away from the wind slipping past.
It took me back to a man in London who apologised for being in his condition. I’d said it could happen to any of us. How close we are, but how little consideration society gives to such unfortunates. He had been a soldier, had, “Seen too many nasty things to cope with.”
What would turn any of us from the route we enjoy through life’s tempestuous waters? What would change mine? If I were to suddenly be without my wife, for me that would be tough. It’s strange, I’ve always been strong, independent, but our love is strong and in my present condition, our relationship sustains me. We’ve had an incredibly stressful thirty years, life has constantly attacked us on almost every level creating great instability, we’ve moved often due to very small incomes, faced my death more than once, lost so much, struggled, struggled, yet we’ve coped. We respect and love one another even though this has been severely challenged in so many ways. Relationships are what you make them, generally speaking they are based on mutual respect, empathy, a conscious effort to share.
That man in the covered alley, all those people lying on our pavements across the country, they appear to have none of this. I asked him if they help each other. His voice was firm, non-judgemental. “We stand alone. We have to. It is survival out here. You must look after yourself. That’s all.”
Wow, imagine such an existence, so bared of all which preoccupies us. No home, no security, no money, no-one to turn to for comfort. No support. Gosh, how lucky any of us are who has any one of these things.
For one reason or another you lose your job, (poor health in my case), can’t pay the rent, slide in to debt…. For years we’ve slid alongside that chasm, only just avoiding tumbling in. When you fall into it you can’t get out. It takes years, cutting back, doing very little, living the life of a pauper, then one month you are out, but the next you slide back in. You struggle as your friends spin around enjoying life, pubs, trips away, spending sprees. Unlike us, those on the pavement were unable to lift themselves out. We were lucky. Chance, that’s what tips you over.
Surely, with all the billions washing about we can solve this, work out ways to shelter these vulnerable people, at the very least during the harsh winter months. Imagine being ill upon the streets? Imagine dying on hard, cold concrete, alone, without company, without love.