Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Down and Out

Finally. Summer is here. London is awake once more, the streets buzzing with people, parks filled with office workers on their lunch break catching a few rays, pavements scattered with tables and chairs tempting passersby with a refreshing drink as they watch the world go by. Everyone is outside again, making the most of the weather whilst it is here.
And I mean everyone. That means those at the bottom of the socially-acceptable food chain too. It is a shame. I mean who wants a hefty dose of guilt thrown into their day?
Take Monday for example. Whilst enjoying my iced coffee in a popular coffee bar, a woman came in with a shopping trolley, no doubt full of her worldly possessions. Her clothes were worn and mismatched, her hair knotted, her nails black. She looked bewildered. The clientele turned their backs on her, trying to ignore her desperation. A member of staff shouted at her to leave. She scuttled out of the shop, throwing her cup of water in her trolley, seemingly unaware that she was soaking her cargo as she did so. Later that evening a man entered and quietly went from table to table asking for change. Again he was greeted with coldness or pity. The same assistant chased him out of the shop. He left with quietly, his dignity intact – which is more than can be said of a lot of other people in that bar.
The thing is the sunshine brings out the good, the bad and the plain ugly. No one likes to be reminded that there are people sleeping on the streets with nothing more than the clothes on their back, people living with mental illness and addiction, alone in a city crammed full of people.
Last night, after my yoga class, I sat in Islington Green to eat my M&S falafel wrap before one of my “groups”. As I munched through my dinner, I caught up on a bit of people watching. Sat in one corner of the park was an Asian woman of about forty. She sat on a bench on her own, having an animated conversation to somebody I couldn’t see but she clearly could. She gestured as she spoke, covering her mouth in shock at one point, laughing loudly at another. Every now and then she jumped up to touch her toes or perform another such exercise.
People took a wide berth as they walked passed.
Opposite, a man sat on a bench. He was well dressed, middle aged, with a Tesco carrier bag by his side. He drank from a bottle of wine, concealed within his bag, taking quick swigs when he thought no-one was looking. Whilst he did so, he fed pigeons pieces of Gu brownie. It struck me that this was a particularly generous act. But then, I guess if pigeons are your only friends, you are going to share your posh pudding with them, aren’t you?
So why are we so squeamish about seeing homeless people? Why do we choose to ignore those who have fallen into the pit of addiction or been hit by mental illness? I guess a lot of it is because we all know, deep down, that it could happen to anyone. Is it one in four people who have a mental health problem? Quite a scary statistic when you think about it. And, as the Lotto advert used to cheerily tell us, it could be you. And let’s face it, we all know someone who we fear drinks a pint or ten too many on the average night out or seems a little bit too keen to spice up a party with something stronger.
At the weekend I watched Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story. The film documented the catastrophic results of the economic crash in the good old US of A. People who had worked all their lives and trusted the banks with promises of financial freedom lost their homes. One family loaded their worldly possessions into the back of their truck, burning anything that wouldn’t fit. They were paid $1000 for clearing their house. Humiliating does not even come close. And again, I know someone who, if it wasn’t for their generous (and well-off) parents was at real risk of having their home re-possessed due to sudden unmanageable hikes in their mortgage repayments. It could happen to any one of us.
The thing is the problem is going to get worse. Apparently the mayor of London wants to eradicate street homelessness by that golden year 2012. How he is going to manage that I do not know, bearing in mind that, were I work at least, hostels are being closed and the criteria for accessing help with your housing is getting tighter and tighter. Those of us who become victims of poor financial advice and bad luck are screwed.
So, when you are disturbed by an “unfortunate” this summer as you enjoy your ice cream or cold beer, please remember they were perhaps once like you and I, happy, comfortable, safe. We will have to get used to their presence, as I predict we will be seeing more of those who have slipped through the net in the near future.

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