by Andrew Fraser
I should really be writing this article, but instead I’m shooting the breeze with my east European, and similarly homeless, mates: Alfie (from Albania), Costa (Romania), Mario (Poland), and Dmitri (somewhere between Bulgaria and Mars).
I love these reprobates dearly. My brothers. I can spend hours with Dmitri listening to him wittering on in Bulgarian, and I don’t have a fucking clue what he’s going on about. He has lived here 12 years and the only English he seems to know is “Cigarette?” and “Me, no trouble!” said with deadly earnestness and a blue-black eye (to which I always reply “No, you TROUBLE Dmitri!!!”, and he falls about laughing).
The other day he took me to buy some cheap Balkan fags, and he chattered like a Furby all the way. On the way back I said to him “Y’know Dmitri, I haven’t got a fucking clue what you’re on about and I never have,” and he laughed heartily. I used to work in the media and I prefer my street mates by a mile. I never fitted-in and I didn’t really want to. But here among my fellow deadbeats I can relax. On the streets I seemed to find my place in this world.
I’ve just spent the morning in the job centre watching them tie poor Alfred up in knots with their deliberately impossible demands. I won’t let him give up. I can’t, even if I wanted to, because we are currently both living off my own benefits and my book sales. The book is a diary of my time on the streets and the proceeds go towards making my mates smile and bunging them the odd can of cider, knock-off Moldovan fags, and food.
It’s so much happier being around them in the muck and the rain than fighting the Matrix at Her Majesty’s DWP. With the help of others we’ve just got Alfie and Costa off the streets for a time, and I sleep more easily knowing they’re safe. But they’ve no money whatsoever, so they’re left with a choice between shelter but penury, or the violence and degradation of life on the pavement in Stratford … but with money, cigs and food from well wishers. Both have been horribly unwell and seemed weeks or even days from death before we got them somewhere safe – but I don’t think they’d have stayed indoors if I hadn’t had my book sales to keep them in basic comforts.
“But they choose to be homeless” – if I had a bed for the night for every time I’ve heard this sanctimonious bullshit. You can’t live on thin air and they would have just been exchanging homelessness for captivity if I and others hadn’t stepped in. You can’t be recaptured when you’ve been homeless. We’ve gone feral. I’d never have met them if it wasn’t for homelessness. So I’m glad it happened, in many ways. It was meant to be, clearly. Life sends you on some unexpected paths, but for all we endured, I’m grateful for them, and that it enabled me to document something so prevalent and yet so misunderstood.
So, yes, homelessness is horrific, cruel, unnecessary, soul-wrecking, dehumanising and exhausting. And when you say that fast, it might not seem like much … but trust me, the scars run deep. It’s incredibly difficult. But when we reject love, we love deep. For all its horrors there’s something liberating about rough sleeping. You’ve fallen as far as you can without actually dying. You go cry your tears in McDonald’s bogs then you let the tears dry on your face and get on with it. No point moaning.
We’ve been rejected by society so, quid pro quo, we no longer feel the need to abide by societal norms. So, yes officer, I will take a piss in that telephone box. They closed all the public toilets and Wetherspoon’s won’t let us take a dump in their dumps, so we go where we have to. Treat us like animals and we have no choice but to behave like them. And we are as free as urban foxes, we go where and when we have to. Free men and women, no longer slaves to the great big hamster wheel you’re all on.
So what is homelessness then?
Well really, it’s nothing.
It’s just a word.
An assortment of letters.
We’ve become so used to it, it really means nothing to us anymore.
It’s that girl with a few teeth and a twitch begging at the station.
It’s that bloke staggering around the shopping centre, drunk.
Who are these people?
They’re homeless. But they’re not us. We could never be them.
So just ignore them. Pretend they’re not there. Carry on recycling. You’re saving the world, after all. Nobody could ever suggest you were a bad person. Not like those wasters. You recycle and sign petitions, for heaven’s sake.
I mean you work hard. Not like those wasters. With their hands out. Most of them aren’t even English. Fuck off back to where you came from. Stop draining our society.
She was raped as a child. She’s traumatised. Now she’s taking drugs to hide her pain. On the streets she’s still repeatedly raped in her sleep.
He went to Afghanistan as an 18 year old child. He saw his best friend, the one who saved his life, blown to smithereens in front of him. There was barely enough of him left to bury. Now he drinks away his pain on the streets. He was decorated for bravery but nobody actually asked him how he felt.
He came from east Europe. His government encouraged him to come here. He was unemployed and a drain on their system. He came here and lived in a room with seven other men, working cash-in-hand. For £3 an hour. Then he got poorly. He’s not as young as he used to be. Now he can’t get employment, and he’s never accessed benefits. He’s fucked and drinking it all away. If he goes back to Warsaw or Bucharest he will freeze to death. The cold and violent streets of Stratford are like paradise compared to where he could be.
You will never walk in our shoes.
So before you rush to judge. Take a good long look at yourself. What did you do to deserve all you have? What did you actually do? Do you really have a grip on how privileged you are?
Sure you’re a good parent, you have nice mates and you buy them thoughtful birthday presents. But family and friends are just an extension of human ego. Helping strangers is true kindness. True love.
Stop judging and start helping. Stop moaning about the political establishment. It was ever thus. They won’t solve this. It falls to us.
Join the teams of community volunteers working unheralded in their own areas. Join the movement. Celebrate us and grieve for those of us who didn’t make it.
I often go back to the words, often attributed to Dietrich Von Bonhoeffer, which help direct my shoes:
“Silence in the face of evil, is in itself, evil.
Not to speak, is to speak.
Not to act, is to act.
God will not hold us countless.”
Whether he uttered those words of not, Dietrich was hung by wire by Nazis.
Laid his life on the line.
What are you doing?
I tell you what me and my mates did. We saved each other’s lives and we refused to die …
Andrew Fraser is the author of Invisible: Diary of a Rough-Sleeper (Freedom Press, 2019). Please buy a copy and help him keep his mates in fags, food, cider and smiles.
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