“Well, I was mending this car you see, I’m like a trainee mechanic. And then the clutch cable just snapped and broke my two fingers here and snapped this…see here, this tendon in my wrist. That’s the lump there.”
He points to the swelling on the inside of his left wrist, visible just below the dirty tissue he’s wrapped around his damaged, blue hand. Blood runs from the lump along his arm to where the sleeve of his jumper is pulled up. “Could you spare any change perhaps, ‘cos I need to get to a hospital and I’d heard of you guys…”
It’s Monday night in Nottingham city centre and four of us are heading out on the Soup Run to the usual homeless haunts to hand out sandwiches, drinks, fruit and other essentials to those classed by society as ‘less fortunate’. As the man’s story unfolds, the events become more and more unbelievable and we realise that he is a heroin addict whose latest hit has just gone horribly wrong. As we don’t carry money on us as a matter of principle we can only give him something to eat and drink and direct him to the local walk-in clinic, where medical help is available.
By this time our other ‘regulars’ have turned up, throwing plastic bags and ‘Big Issue’ satchels down with the usual chorus of “Oh about time! Where have you guys been?! I’ve been looking everywhere!”
This week someone has donated a selection of scarves and gloves, and angry voices start to rise as some of the men grab more than their fair share.
“He’s not even f**king homeless, he isn’t,” one of them grumbles in my ear.
The people that turn up for a free meal and, more often than not, a good chat are a complete mixture of genuine car park-hopping homeless, squatting addicts, individuals with learning and social difficulties, and those that just have no real home-life in which they feel comfortable or secure and have therefore been forced to seek their company elsewhere.
As we stand there, the usual evening traffic of people continues to walk past. One of our guys attempts to sell a ‘Big Issue’ whilst balancing a cup of coffee in the crook of his arm. We do attract looks from the hurrying passers-by, and I suppose we are an unconventional gathering, but a couple of curious glances is the extent of their interaction.
A middle-aged man stands slightly apart from the group that has gathered around the benches upon which our bags are sitting. I go up to him and we start talking about his story, and how he ended up on the streets. After a run-in with the authorities he was forcibly evicted from his council house. At around the same time he fell ill, lost his job and suddenly found himself with no alternative but a life on the streets. “Now I don’t have anyone. No one to look after. Guess I just have to look after myself…but I’m not doing that very well, am I?” The stories vary as do the reasons for being homeless.
Will then turns up, kicking a plastic cup with vigour into the centre of the group. He is a ‘Big Issue’ seller and a heavy heroin addict. A few weeks ago he had shown me a track mark that he was worried about. “How’s your hand today?”
“Yeah, well I don’t really know…haven’t gone to the doctor yet.”
He takes off his gloves to show an unhealthy swelling on the back of his hand that has grown since the last time I saw it. When asked about it, he is very open about his addiction, as a lot of the guys are.
The official approach to serious drug addiction is little short of appalling. In comparison to certain other countries our government refuses to view it as a social problem, and have therefore baulked at suggestions of, for example, medically-prescribed heroin, which has proven success rates in the Netherlands and Australia.
“You know, if I could get off it I would. You just can’t understand if you haven’t been addicted”, Will tells us.
“Give us a bed, a roof over our heads and heating and then we’d manage it,” his selling partner, adds.
Especially at this time of year when the temperature drops the incentive to get rid of their only chance of escaping and forgetting is non-existent.
The food has started to run out and we pack up our bags to move on to the next location. Will and a few of the other guys walk with us. “Want to hear a good joke?”, Will asks. “Right, what happened to the man who was caught stealing rhubarb?…He got taken into custardy!” We all groan and Will falls around laughing.
We walk up from Broadmarsh shopping centre and usually end up around Rock City. Today we haven’t seen Rachel, or her boyfriend, Nick. Finding women on the streets is far rarer than men, but every now and again one turns up, usually in desperate need of female hygiene products that are, for lack of money, practically impossible to get hold of. It is, as you can imagine, much harder for a woman to survive alone living rough and it also much easier for them to find an alternative, more often than not in the form of prostitution.
When we don’t have anything else to hand out and the guys have drifted off to their various haunts, we head home – through the hoards of semi-naked Oceana-goers, past the drunken groups of students wandering through market square, along the roads lined with shops displaying a wealth of unnecessary stuff, to our warm houses that have beds, showers, and heating. The reality check provided by an evening like this is really overwhelming, and it’s one that we could all do with.
When you talk to the guys on the street, their stories range from shocking to fantastical to hilarious. General social perception tends to group the ‘less fortunate’ into one undefined, partially frowned-upon, partially pitied entity. Yet once you talk to the individuals, and listen to how and what they want to tell about themselves, this entity reveals itself as nothing but a comfortable fiction to categorise those that haven’t had such a successful climb on the capitalist ladder.
I don’t know if handing out a couple of sandwiches helps on the grander scale of things, and I’m not even sure that half the guys we meet don’t just see us as a patronising group of students. However, I do know that spending a few pounds on a loaf of bread and cheese and spending a few hours out of the all-consuming student bubble can lead to one of the more interesting evenings you’ll have.
How to bridge the gap
Rather than giving a few coins to the homeless people you encounter, it might be worth considering the following:
• They always need clothing, especially now during the colder months, so giving them a pair of gloves or a hat is a good alternative to money.
• Buying a coffee or a sandwich is another way to provide a homeless person with a basic necessity.
• If you don’t have much money to spare, strike up a conversation with one of the guys. A lot of them feel socially alienated, but you can help change this just by showing a bit of interest and spending a few minutes listening to what they have to say.