As I sat on a wall to eat my haloumi wrap, I noticed a guy further along sitting on the ground with a piece of cardboard held up in front of his face. Before going over to talk to him I finished off my meal, and in that time only one passer by dropped money in his cup.
He turned out to be a 49 year old Irish man whom I shall call Keith. A message on his cardboard notice said he wanted money for food and shelter. This turned out not to be exactly the case.
“I lost my job in Ireland 3 years ago and broke up with my wife at the same time. I’d been in London before so I decided to come back here.”
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“In a shelter – it’s very good, I’ve got my own room.”
“Do you get food and have a chance to wash?”
“So, this begging is just to supplement your income, to buy cigarettes and stuff?”
“Yes, but I don’t smoke any more.”
“Don’t passers by ask you why you don’t get a job?”
(Laughs) “Yes, I don’t worry with them!”
“Well, why don’t you work, then?”
“It’s my chest. I have C.O.P.D. (?)”
“It’s a kind of bronchitis. The doctor says I’m not fit enough to work, so I can’t sign on, and I’m not sick enough to qualify for Income Support.”
“So, you’ve fallen between 2 stools. Do you currently claim any benefits at all?”
“No, but I used to get ESA. It’s complicated. I’m not allowed to apply again for another 12 months. I have good days and bad days. I couldn’t swallow for the whole of last weekend, and it was raining so I couldn’t come out on the street.”
“Can your family in Ireland send you money?”
“No, my ex won’t and anyway she’s looking after our 2 kids, one girl’s 18 and the other is 24.”
At that moment, a passer by accidentally dropped a full packet of Marlboroughs on the ground and was lost in the crowd before we could call him back. I think Keith’s resolve not to smoke didn’t last very long that day. He seemed more pleased by that windfall than by the two pounds I left in his paper cup!