I smiled hard at an ageing homeless geezer yesterday as he played off-key tunes on a cheap child’s flute. He blew me ardent air kisses and mouthed words I couldn’t catch. His wind weathered skin, addled gratitude and begging cap laid out on the cold street took me back two hundred years, right into a Dickens novel. But actually it was me grateful to him for whisking me out of my head into the present.
I hadn’t planned to walk into town for my habitual ‘cafe-write’: my fear of the day dissipating away wheedled at me to just get to the joint at the end of the road and start writing. The terror of returning to non-functioning days still haunts but my need for (a) daily exercise and (b) practice in not heading by default into stress-brain, overrode my panic and here was I walking along.
But when feeling present (i.e. not numb) the sheer volume of street sleepers still shocks every time I reach town. Or even step two minutes from my front door, since it’s now spread into the inner city district where I live. It is no longer headline news. It is no longer surprising. It is that fact that is shocking. That the sea of duvets and bodies and paraphernalia tucked into shop doorways has become completely normal.
And I wonder, where the fuck have we got to?
I mean, really. Mostly now we walk past, blot it out, because what else can you do? Maybe you drop a few coins in, or maybe you smile apologetically, wishing they knew what a nice person you are really but it’s just that ” I’m a part-time Teaching Assistant and it’s pretty much minimum wage, and I only get by cos I top it up with Universal Credit, I don’t have spare money and there are so many of you, how do I choose…?”
This is all very nice, but it’s a problem that should be solved politically.
Having worked for many years in the field of social housing, I’m not naive about the individual factors involved: family rejection, mental health, lack of support, poverty and yes, sometimes drug and alcohol dependency. But with the correct services and support in place, those factors wouldn’t automatically result in a life on the street.
So, we have to call it. The shocking rise in street sleeping is a by-product of a shocking failure in (or inevitable result of?) capitalism. Do we really believe it is one big fat massive coincidence that it has reached epidemic proportions since the introduction of Austerity Measures? The rich fucked up, and the poor have had to pay.
And if we could look up from our Selfies and On-demand box-set bingeing just long enough to really take that in, we would be fucking horrified. We would be demanding action. Only you know, it’s Christmas and we have to buy stuff, because, you know, we have to. And anyway, right now, the politicians are so busy with the B-word.
Queen Street, the main paved area running through Cardiff City Centre is a living (dead?) monument to the capitalist paradox. In our slavish devotion to the glitter-shine shopfronts cajoling us towards Christmas (over)consumption we step aside the dirty bedding and matted heads in our way, trying not to register the parallel realities, blocking out the sneaking suspicion that they might be related.
Some of us also block out the relief that it isn’t us in those doorways. We may be running up raging credit debts, downing a bottle of red every night in our homes, drinking our weight in coffee every morning, hanging on by our finger nails thanks to Citalopram, just to get through. But at least we look normal. We’re doing what you’re supposed to do. Not like the doorway dwellers who have, so visibly, failed.
I know the shame of losing the ability to function. But when it has happened to me, I’ve had siblings and a partner and friends to save me. I smiled hard at the homeless guy yesterday cos I felt lucky. But sentiment shouldn’t take away our rage for justice.