Saturday, 6 December 2008
A month or so again it was still warm. That's when I saw him: a stocky, cheerful, black-bearded man smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback book. He looked as though he was enjoying life. And that struck me because he was snuggled in a sleeping bag beneath a blanket in a shop doorway. He had half an hour or so till the shop would open and was enjoying the his daylight solitude.
It's not hard to see rough-sleepers in any town if you get up early. There's an underpass which usually houses one or two men (usually men, sometimes women) who, on cold nights, burrow deep into their sleeping bags so that only their hair or a woolly hat is visible. Every so often the underpass floods and the sleepers aren't there any more. I don't know where they go.
I don't know where they go in the snow and hard frosts we've had in the past fortnight. There are hostels - but not many - and I've heard that some rough-sleepers are frightened of them. The people who use them are sometimes drunk or mentally ill. People who are homeless have rarely had a comfortable, secure past.
I don't know what to do to help rough sleepers. I know money would help, because it would provide warmth, which must be a major need. But money is short in a time of financial crisis - people (including me) cling to what they have.
Most vulnerable of all are the asylum seekers forced into destitution because their claims for help have been refused. Some fear deportation - what they fear must be terrible if they choose homelessness and near-starvation in preference. Failed asylum seekers are forbidden to work, forbidden to claim benefits, forced to beg for survival. A local organisation hands out supplies but it doesn't have much money. Destitute asylum seekers are given a bag of food a week if they can find somewhere to cook it or £2.50 a week if they cannot.
Meanwhile, we prepare to celebrate Christmas. The story tells of a young couple forced to shelter in a stable because there is nowhere else for them to sleep. Later, with a small baby, they seek asylum in Egypt because they fear persecution at home.
When the shops open, the rough sleepers move on. The Christmas carols mingle with more recent songs in the city centres.