Tuesday, December 02, 2003

This morning I gave someone money on the train to work. If you live in any city in the UK you will be familiar with the numbers of homeless and beggars that line our city pavements and in London, despite efforts to control this, the problem is as bad as ever. There are many theories as to why 25 years ago this section of society either didn’t exist or was virtually invisible, but I’ve never read anything conclusive. My first instinct of course is to blame Thatcher. This however is a bit like blaming God for all the evils in the world - it’s undeniable that the supreme authority must in some way be responsible, but it doesn’t really get us very far in analysing the mechanism or finding a solution.

About 4 years ago I was working in Leicester Square and living near Goodge Street. Every night after work my colleagues and I would go to the same pub and drink a huge amount, and then I would walk home on my own through Soho. The combination of late night drunkenness, curiosity about the causes of homelessness and making the same journey at the same time every day soon led me to be on nodding terms with most of the homeless whose regular pitches were on my route, and sometimes I would sit down next to them and hear what they had to say. This admittedly anecdotal evidence led me to the following conclusions :

1) The homeless in London are, by and large, not shirking kids who have perfectly good homes waiting for them if they could just stop being such wasters
2) Neither are they professional beggars who go back to their benefit sponsored squats at night
3) Many of the homeless are there due to physically abusive home environments or relationship breakdown.
4) The youngest are the most vulnerable due to total uncompetitivity in the housing market and a complete absence of acceptable council accommodation.
5) The biggest reason for remaining on the street is drug abuse / alcoholism
6) Money given to the homeless on the street is as likely to be spent on alcohol or drugs as it is on food or accommodation.

Consequently despite having a lot of sympathy and understanding for the homeless I rarely give them money on the street, except of course when I’m pissed.

So why did I give this young woman cash? Initially when getting on the train she hadn’t attracted my attention at all, she seemed normally dressed, just another commuter sitting in a corner. Anyway later on when most of the other people had got off the train she came over to me - which is unusual as by and large train and tube beggars are considered to be the most pernicious and unwanted – only one step away from being muggers. So I actually took a proper look at this girl. She looked about 18 but could have been 20, or 16 – who knows - and she looked uneasy or nervous. She was holding her jaw which appeared to be kind of swollen but it was hard to tell as she had her hood up. Then I noticed that her hands were literally black with encrusted dirt which again is not a good sign. She asked me for 20p quite politely and I hope I didn’t flinch. Not all of her teeth were where they should be and those that were were brown and grey and green. And this wasn’t just a bit of spotting - her teeth were rotting right out of her head. I gave her some change, and she said thank you and left me alone before getting off at the next station, the ever horrible Turkey Street, and running away down the platform. If I’d had just a bit more wit about myself I’d have said something more to her (but what exactly???) or at the very least told her to go to a dentist before she got blood poisoning.

To get to that stage she must have been failed by everyone from her parents through to Tony Fucking Blair. And now I can add myself to that list as well.

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