David was standing at the Co-op cash point opposite Victoria Station as I queued to get money for the bus home. It was dark and cold and he was asking the people ahead for small change to get a bed for the night. They walked off as though he was a ghost, wending their way home. That was how the conversation started: when he showed me the burn scars on his leg, like woodworm, and saying he'd been beaten up and set alight in Victoria Station and got out of hospital that morning with just a half-eaten packet of Jammy Dodgers in his pocket.
David is 44 and a carpenter by trade, but for the past ten months has been sleeping rough. Born on the same Salford estate as L.S Lowry, he speaks in clear tones, not the voice of an addict, and gently excuses the 'fuck offs' of the general public with substitutes. David's situation arose from a lawsuit when he tried to get his late father's business out of debt. Ending up losing house, business and £670,000, he says they "took everything."
From living a sustainable life with a business, vehicle and home, he describes the process of getting state funding as "being treated like I'm a different species because I don't have an address." He is not entitled to benefits because he does not have a residence, but has paid taxes all his life. It is difficult to find a place to stay where substance abusers do not take priority, as these are considered 'high risk' homeless and most important to take off the streets. His burns, which need air to heal, are a disadvantage to the health and safety requirements of many hostels yet make it a necessity that he find somewhere indoors to sleep. The refuge where he may stay costs £38.50 a week.
The general public on the whole are unsympathetic. He is called a junkie and a crack-head by people who he has never spoken to. Hospital workers are 'civil', but recovering from the attack that has left him scarred all over his body, he says that, "as soon as the police found out I was homeless they stopped asking about the attack and wanted to know why I was trespassing." They are lazy, he says, in investigating assaults on the homeless. Sleeping rough, "you are at the mercy of whoever finds you and what kind of day they're having."
He suffered a punctured lung from being beaten with a litter picker, and recalls his assailants filming him on their mobile phones whilst he rolled in his sleeping bag trying to extinguish the flames that engulfed it as he slept, the cotton insides melting onto his skin. He was in hospital for six days yet the attack has not been in the papers, although the police say they are investigating. Without the station master catching a glimpse on CCTV in the early hours, he might not have survived.
The riots are still on people's lips but there is violence on the streets that goes unspoken of. Perpetrated by opportunists, or the blind eyes of police waiting at traffic lights where rugby fans jacket-less and pissed off in the rain, set upon a homeless man outside the Hard Rock Café, these experiences bear few witnesses. David says that a recurring thought occurs when he remembers the police van driving off: why don't they stop?
A lot of people are poor at the moment but even with part time work or dole money most are comfortable enough to replace shoes that leak or buy a cup of tea when the mood takes them. Shelter record the struggle for families to pay rent and buy food, but what also needs to be talked about is the inhumanity that takes place on the pavements and doorways of the city.
Vandalism is a by-product of ennui; brutality such as this occurs when a section of society becomes invisible and subsequently valueless to the comfortable majority, concerned with preserving their own standard of living. David says that he "is in a privileged position to experience life on the other side of the fence" and recommends me Phil Collin's 'Another Day in Paradise' to listen to…
Photo by Parrot of Doom
See also the story of Lancaster House click here