I’ve been familiar with the Yorkshire accent ever since I taught Yorkshire kids in a comprehensive school in Doncaster many years ago, so it came as no surprise when John told me he was from Leeds. More than that, he had been a football hooligan supporter of Leeds United. Now in his forties, with a grown up son in the navy, he was like a kind of carer for other homeless people. He had brought a take-away curry for his neighbour on the cardboard mattress, Ignazio; and he told me how he nearly turned to violence against some passers-by who had started abusing another homeless man. He had come to terms with Ignazio’s mental aberrations especially his incessant talking to himself as he tried to sort out his mental demons.
He in turn was grateful to his Italian neighbour for putting his begging hat full of coins somewhere safe for him when he walked off and forgot about it. And another friend who had just got a place in a hostel took his clothes in for him and got them washed.
When I asked him if he was cold at night, he opened his bag and showed me his thick pullover – this kept him snug, and the shop front he slept next to was designed with a protruding upper floor so rain didn’t come down onto the pavement at that point. He was also able to take a shower whenever he wanted. His reasons for not being in a hostel were complicated, but he was sure one element was that only Poles were welcome there, and that English and Italian homeless were kept out deliberately, not that he had anything against Poles…..
He had become homeless when his marriage broke up. He had had a mortgage, and paid it partly with money someone had left him, and partly from his salary. He lost all that when his wife was awarded the property after the divorce.
He was drinking Strongbow from a can and smoking a fag. “I can get this cider for only £1, it’s twice that in the West End. It’s 5% which is OK; or I can get K for £1.30 for a can of 8% strength. Taste isn’t much though.”
He finished by telling me his philosophy of homelessness: “If you see us, don’t judge us; we’re not just here to beg. Don’t write us off, most of us have got problems.”
Amen to that.
I shook his hand and left.