Having been a homeless activist for over ten years I have met many homeless people, many I would regard as characters. There has been a lot of sadness and tragedy, including premature death and the revolving door of unresolved addiction and untreated mental illness. But there have been positives too and what I would like to do is tell the story of six homeless “friends” by way of examples. While two of these are no longer alive, four are, so the names used are made up.
I met Adam in my early days as a homeless activist, when my eyes began to open concerning the need. At the time I was a Street Pastor, and what we did was patrol the streets around Southend High Street, between 10pm and 3am on a Friday and Saturday, trying to help folk in need. Often we would meet Adam under the railway bridge in the middle of the High Street. We might chat over a coffee. I remember him reading Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World” and our discussing what this might look like. Not long after, Adam died. I was able to locate his family and arrange a memorial service. Indelibly on my mind was something an ex-homeless guy shared. He was being given a hard time by petty officialdom and about to kick off – but Adam stepped in as peace maker.
On the first night as a night shelter manager, I met Brian. Brian was worse for wear for drink and I had the challenging job of having to exclude him. Brian was well known to the authorities as being a wrong ‘un, partly due to his aggressive begging. He is the only person I knew of, who had an anti-social behavior order against him, covering the whole town! A couple of weeks later Brian came to our shelter and he was sober. We let him in. Our main area for congregating was inside the church, which included a piano. I got to play chess with Brian (he was good) and in the background we heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being played (by another guest). Brian recognized approvingly what it was, so I asked the guest if he would do an encore. Surreal moment, but it was Brian at his best.
Charlie was a homeless guy I often came across who, even when inebriated, was invariably courteous. He would sometimes stay at our night shelter and we would have interesting chats. Like many homeless persons he had valuable and some might think surprising insights into the world at large and shared my love for literature, including the works of Shakespeare. We would often bounce our takes on Shakespeare plays including memorable quotes. I still recall Charlie telling me one of the best ever jokes I have heard: What does a dyslexic atheist do who suffers from insomnia? The answer of course is: he stays up half the night wonder if there is a dog. I remember sharing at his funeral and hearing from others paying their respects, and sharing memories when Charlie was in a better place. Once he had been a bus driver and was witness to an accident. Without any ado he got out of his cab, directed traffic and ensured that timely help was given to those who were affected.
Debby was a madam! As with the men, the lady rough sleepers were from all different backgrounds and circumstances and had different outlooks on life. It is reckoned that 20% of the rough sleeper population are homeless; that is my experience. Debby was young (in her teens when I first met her), pretty, able to get twist people round her little finger to get her way but also manipulative and fell into the category of person I had most difficulty coming to terms with – she was “entitled”, although she was also a troubled soul. She was a regular guest at the night shelter I was involved with and could often be relied on to stir up trouble when all we wanted was peace. As a result, we had a number of run ins. Yet Debby could be kind. I can well recall the occasion she presented me with an item of lovely craft work she had lovingly made, whether it was a peace offering I can’t say, but it was appreciated anyway.
Eddie was the ideal night shelter guest. He was pleasant to talk to; he followed the rules and offer to help and was grateful for whatever help we gave him. One night he turned up, but I had to ban him. The reason was simple – the previous night at another shelter he got into a fight with another guest, even though I suspect he had been provoked and had retaliated. I explained the situation, which he was ok with, but as a concession allowed him in for a meal. He then chose to sleep outside on a not very nice night. When I left for the overnight shift to take over, I explained the situation and suggested to the shift leader if appropriate he might allow Eddie in to sleep. Given the weather and the other volunteers liked Eddie, Eddie was allowed in. The shift leader was not a believer, although it was a church shelter. Much to his pleasant surprise, Eddie insisted on leading in a word of prayer before retiring.
What I can say about Fred was that he was a nice, quiet fellow. Around the time I got to know him, his whole world was crumbling around him and he was in a very bad way. We did our best to offer hospitality and support him but as is often the case what we could do was limited. At some point in his journey he joined a local church that was particularly attracting toward homeless people and not long after I was able to see Fred being baptized in the sea. Not long after that he moved away, although there was some contact through social media. As things now stand, Fred is in a good relationship, is housed and is working and, moreover, is a lot happier. If there is a moral, while sometimes all we can do is show kindness and the homeless person doesn’t move on for whatever reason, sometimes it can be as with Fred, making what we do that more satisfying.