“Get a Job!”
This was the reply an educated, articulate and generally amiable mate of mine gave to the guy sat on the floor as we walked past on a rainy boozy November night out.
This beggar who’d dared to ask the question – one of the many on the streets of Manchester that didn’t use the crafty strategies of 50p Phil nor the clever mathematical tactics of the 11p Crew – had no retort for my pal; he simply continued to sit passively like a bundle of rags that had fallen off the back of a dustbin wagon.
Ignorant of the life-sized cardboard cut out of a smiling-family celebrating their new home in the window of the closed building society behind him, his glazed eyes were firmly unfocussed on the middle of nowhere; his mind somewhere a million miles from the dirty paper McDonalds cup collecting scraps of copper and rain in front of him.
The chink of my meagre contribution as quiet as his response,
“Cheers mate,” he whispered.
“He’ll spend it on drugs and booze…”
My friend announced loudly over his shoulder – the irony of our evening’s excessive alcoholic expenditure apparently lost on him - as he charged onwards like a city-tour guide explaining a minor detail of interest to his party of one. I wondered how many things could possibly be more important in this mans life at this very moment it time other than becoming numb, the anesthetic of drugs and booze providing the comfort blanket to get him through the night.
“…and it only encourages them.”
He continued – warming to his theme. Clearly I was someone who didn’t understand the complex psychological and economical issues of being homeless.
“Encourages them?” I repeated to myself.
As if my pitiful offering were like a glimpse of three bells to a fruit machine junkie or the smell of a new catalogue to a shopaholic? Like sitting on the cold floor each and every day begging for scraps is something that needs any encouragement?
We discussed the matter no further, a warm bar a cold pint and a night of debauchery drove the unfortunate incident from his mind.
But not from mine.
I’m pretty sure the chap we’d staggered past didn’t have that many options to chose from in life at that time; and I doubt that my token gesture, my pathetic little deposit of coins, is somehow the difference between him continuing to sit there through the rain and occasional abuse and him standing up, stretching his legs and saying “Do you know what. Fuck this for a game of soldiers. I’m going back to the office.”
This was a few years ago, before I left the country, and in hindsight I’m ashamed to say that I’d got to the point where I kind of accepted that there were always going to be people who lived on the streets in Manchester and the UK; it was just a part of what made up the country. I’d become immune to it, almost blind to the numbers of people trying to collect money on the streets. I’d see them yes, I’d give them money, buy an extra coffee or sandwich occasionally; and spend some time – when I had the time – chatting to them. But their presence, and an increasing one at that, was to me something that just happened. They became a part of the scenery of Manchester.
And regardless of the events that led to this particular chap sleeping rough and sitting begging on Market Street on a rainy November evening its seems to be a popular option. According to the statistics its an option that is becoming more and more fashionable every year.
Not that the real picture can be told through statistics alone, as the figures estimated by the government are incomparable to the more relevant ones provided by the charities that actively work with the homeless. The numbers range from a couple of thousand to several thousand sleeping rough each night, but one thing both sets of figures agree on is that the problem is getting bigger.
I guess it’s difficult to count people that don’t seem to exist. And therefore I guess it’s not a priority to do anything about a problem if you aren’t even aware of it, or not interested in acknowledging it. A problem that perhaps those with their claws on the government purse strings never encounter in their daily lives.
The reasons behind homelessness, rough sleeping and the increasing numbers of both are complex and vary between individuals, but it is real problem to many, perhaps not necessarily for you, or for me, but it is a problem for our society. For millions of families it is a threat that is breathing down the back of their necks at the end of the month – each and every month – as they juggle their incomes and expenditures.
So why is it that we seem to be so naturally inclined to be either unnecessarily aggressive or incredibly passive towards these people living in our communities. Why is it so easy to ignore the beggars or turn a blind eye to those we see sleeping in doorways? Have we become immune to it?
I wonder why my friend reacted in the way he did? Did he think that through the fortune of the circumstances he was born into, and by having a job and a house and good health and having successfully managed to avoid the pitfalls of living in a modern capitalist society he has earned the right to be unpleasant to those that have fallen on hard times, or perhaps had never been allowed the opportunities he had? Was he afraid that it could happen to him?
Or is he just an areshole?
Regardless of his reasons, he’s not unique in his attitude. I’m pretty sure you know people just like him.
In his 1933 novel “Down and out in London and Paris”George Orwell suggests a reason for this aggression:
“Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised.”
Isn’t it ridiculous and deplorable that to some extent this is still the case today?
I don’t give a lot of money to charity, I don’t have a lot of money; I still chuck a few coins into paper cups when I am back in Manchester; but I do give a regular monthly donation to a homeless charity in the UK called Shelter www.shelter.org.uk.
If you were debating on wasting money on buying a present you don’t like for someone you like even less this Christmas, you could do far worse than spend that money with them. The money wasted on a pair of novelty socks goes a long way on the streets of Manchester; it would pay for a night in a shelter for a start.
Or if you can’t afford to consider a charitable donation at this time of year, then at least have a look around you when you are out Christmas shopping and drinking, have a look at how many people are sleeping in the doorways as you stagger out of the bars after your Christmas office party.
And say hello to the 50p Phils, the 11p crews and the men and women sat on the floor throughout your city; they’re not trying to rip you off with their clever pattar, or con you into donating more with their mathematical trickery or playing passive aggressive mind games that lead you drop coins in a cup. They are simply doing what they can to stay alive at this time of year.
So don’t ignore them, please don’t pretend they aren’t there.
Because they are and they shouldn’t be.
They aren’t just part of the scenery.