Some months ago now a new homeless man turned up in Wood Green, North London,
where I live. Nothing unusual about that; Wood Green is pretty full of rough sleepers who
come and go. Some of them are still young and fairly healthy. Others have been sleeping out
so long not that they’re showing signs of exhaustion and a kind of fixed despair. One man
just sobs, kneeling and begging.
It is appalling to witness. In my daily walk along Wood Green High Road there is every age
and colour of shambling, lost and hazy soul waiting, sometimes begging, for something
good to happen.
This man was in the worst shape that I’ve ever seen. He just slumped in the early mornings,
up against a damp and filthy wall in a recess at the front of Shopping City. Impossible to
know how old he was, could have been forty or sixty; very very dirty, no socks, no shoes,
feet bleeding – and coughing, dreadfully. It seemed that he was in steep decline and winter
was coming. He was on my mind so much that I dreamt about him, twice in one night. It
seemed impossible to go on doing nothing. I decided to ring 999 next time I saw him.
And then at a church discussion in the afternoon, a church lady spoke up and said that I
ought not. To call an Ambulance would be to take away his choice. She told me how
important it was that people could die their own way. She seemed to know all about it.
I have heard this kind of thing before, from people claiming different positions, for decades.
I don’t like it – or buy it.
Choice is a concept which secure, coping, middle-class people easily assume belongs to
everyone. Does it? So many people that I’ve talked to were raised in extreme, seemingly
choice-free settings – or were bounced into situations so fearful and so fast that it left them
no time or room for manoeuvre. The girls who wrote poetry in my Creative Writing class in
Holloway HMP were brought up to scant choice. People whose jobs are made redundant
have no choice about it. People born into terrible families, or war, or breadline, or worse,
have no choice about it. To know that choice exists is the privilege of those who, at some
point in their lives, were given options. I can’t see that the rough-sleepers on the streets of
Wood Green were aware of options.
Anyway, being homeless, until you are homeless, is unimaginable; I know this from two
friends who have been. Sleeping on floors or the sofas of friends is bad enough; it’s
humiliating and worrying and puts a big strain on relationships with people you like. But
nothing, they say, prepares you for the reality of having nowhere to sleep, to wash, to wash
your clothes, to pee, to belong. Being homeless renders you, almost immediately, mentally
ill, owing to the devastating levels of fear, anxiety and sleeplessness. You never get a good
sleep because the ground is hard and very cold; and because of the fears that you will be set
alight, or be beaten up, or raped.
At various times since the sixties, we have been given the idea (by people both of liberal and
far-right agendas) that homelessness is a choice. Really? The teenagers who leave home to
avoid abuses of various kind are not making a choice so much as making an escape. They’re
often too young to understand or weigh up the relative horrors of homeless and abuse. The
two homeless ladies who, at different times, lived with us were running away from
massively violent husbands. And the people with dependencies who end up sleeping rough
can’t, to my mind, be deemed to be exercising much choice either. They’re supporting
habits over which they long ago lost control; and with which their loved ones lost patience
or hope. It can take a long time – or a lifetime – or never – to find the strength needed to
choose freedom from drugs or drink.
But to return to the shoeless and bleeding man outside Shopping City. I want to know: when
in this man’s life would that church lady think that her (my, our,) responsibility kicked in?
At the point that he lost his final inside-place to sleep?
At the point that he lost his shoes?
At the point that his feet started bleeding?
At the point it began to snow?
At the point that he lost consciousness?
At no point?
So, I’m asking:
Where do liberal or conservative ideas non-intervention and self-determination leave
For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in
prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you
hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he
will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
I went down to Shopping City early next morning. He’d gone. He hasn’t been back.
I’m off the hook.