It was 7.30 on a chilly March evening when I spotted a guy sitting in a sleeping bag in front of a brightly lit shop window. The pavement was busy with commuters going into the station nearby. I wanted to find out why he was there, on a piece of cardboard and hugging his knees in an almost foetal position. What had happened in his life to bring him to this? I knelt on the paving stones so that our eyes were level and I asked him if he was really homeless. It turned out he had been sleeping rough for 7 months in London. When I asked him why, he wiggled his finger near his forehead – mental problems.
He had come over from Italy over 15 years ago and had been working all that time. He had mental issues, unspecified, but he did mention that at school he had been violent, and was not a bright pupil. He told me that because he couldn’t provide the tax authorities with 15 year worth of pay slips, he couldn’t prove his status to them, so without a tax code he didn’t qualify for housing benefit. It sounded to me like something a half-competent social worker could sort out with a couple of phone calls.
I asked him whether he had seen a psychiatrist. His reply was that a friend of his had been down that road and had been put in an asylum for 3 years, and he didn’t want that to happen to him. He knew what meds he needed, but he refused to take them because they had bad side-effects.
He admitted it got cold at night but said he didn’t go hungry because people were always bringing food for rough sleepers, like rolls and buns when the bakers closed.
I remembered reading this week that the average life-expectancy for a rough sleeper in Britain is only 48. I wished Ignazio well and left him slightly better off as I moved to speak to his friend who had just arrived. (See next Post)