He’s a waste of space. I walk past him all the time on the way to work. He always looks worse when he wants money, he puts on an act. He looks sad and pathetic, he puts out a few pennies but he’s probably got twenty quid tucked away in his pocket. He takes advantage of do-gooders, he knows they’ll give him money. I bet most of it goes on drugs. He doesn’t want help to get out of his situation, he’s a career beggar. If he wanted help of any kind he would have got it by now.
Dan has been coming to us for a few years. He likes to chat with us, we’re something different from his usual conversations. He always asks if we have the almas caviar and a nice bit of wagyu tenderloin, they must be a favourite.
I’m always struck by his face, it speaks volumes. His eyes are sunk deep into their sockets and his skin is lined and weathered. There’s not an ounce of fat on him; his cheekbones jut out, and his hair is all long and matted at the back. He has missing teeth. He doesn’t look crafty or shifty or unhinged; you can see sorrow in his face, a profound sadness behind his toothy grin and distant gaze. Sadness and fatigue, like life has worn him out. Like he’s seen too much for his soul to bear.
You know he’s troubled but he never says anything about his problems or his background, we’ve never probed, we just want to love him for who he is and show compassion. I’m sure he gets a lot of abuse, he sleeps rough. He’s always polite though, he always says thanks. And he needs kindness in his life too. He needs it reciprocated. You would want that if you were in his shoes.
Sometimes you don’t see him for days and days and you wonder what has happened. You start to worry. But he always comes back, asking for his caviar and steak. Sometimes a bit more gaunt or unkempt, but he always comes back.
I’ve known Dan for two years. I think it’s two. We call him Mullet cos of his hair and his surname. We’ve shared a lot of doorways me and Mully. Doorways, rollies, cells. Park benches. Underpasses. Tube stations before they started kicking us out. He’s a good bloke; deep down he’s a kind man, he looks out for others. He’ll share his food with you and give you his spare socks. He’s a people person, he’s interested in people; he wants to properly talk and get to know you. But at the end of the day you have to put yourself first and look after yourself or you’ll get eaten alive out here. He’s kind when he can be, but he’s not dumb or naive, he’s street smart, he won’t let his guard down. He’s a wily old fox. A kind wily old fox. He has his issues like all of us, but he keeps them hidden away, he won’t burden you with them.
Daniel Mullins. He’s known to us. He’s a known user. We’ve had to pick him up a few times when he’s been completely out of it or if he’s being a nuisance, but on balance he doesn’t cause much trouble. Once or twice we’ve had to call the paramedics when he’s overdosed. We’re impartial, we look out for him like we would anyone else. We found him down an alley once lying in his own vomit, we had to chase away a stray dog that was hovering around trying to eat it. It’s not an image you get out of your head too easily.
He’s preyed on by drug dealers, they know he’s an addict, they know he’s vulnerable. They’re wolves going after the weak. We found him badly beaten up one night, by a dealer. Ribs broken, bloody face. It wasn’t pleasant. He probably owed the dealer money. He wouldn’t say who did it, we had a pretty good idea, but we couldn’t do anything about it.
Dan comes from a middle class background but it was very nonconformist. He didn’t have a father figure for most of his youth and his mother was a hippie back in the day, and a lot of that counter-cultural, anti-establishment way of life has rubbed off on him. He got into drugs at a young age, he started with cannabis as so many do, and he never really had a solid job or career. He’s worked on the rides for a travelling fairground, sold flowers at a market stall in Croydon and he’s worked up and down the railways clearing the scrub and weeds. He flirted around on the edge of society. I remember he told me once that he wanted to go into music, he loved to DJ at illegal raves and squat parties, but it didn’t translate into a well paid job. He had a long term relationship that went sour and it hit him hard. He turned to what he knows and ended up on hard drugs. It went downhill from there. He got kicked out of his flat, stayed with friends for a while, then a hostel and then the streets. It’s usually a gradual slide with homeless people. It’s unusual to transition from a stable life to the streets in one day. And once you’re homeless the street mentality slowly takes over until it becomes who you are, it defines you and shapes you and holds you in its grip.
I think with Dan there are pros and cons to him staying on the streets. There’s massive inequality and huge spending cuts, but we’re still a wealthy country; well-off people have a lot to give away. So he’s got enough clothes and community and money and food to get him through but it stops him wanting to sort his life out. If his life was completely unbearable he would soon be compelled to get real help, but as it is at the moment he doesn’t have to confront his demons, he just feeds them in a way.
You live day to day. It’s more about survival than enjoying life. Don’t get me wrong, you can enjoy the simple things. Things that don’t cost anything. Most people don’t see all those quiet, mellow sunrises I’ve seen. But you can’t enjoy a holiday in the Maldives, or a two hundred pound helicopter ride over London at night. We’re stuck down here in the litter and the filth and the fear and the sirens. In some ways it’s less stressful, you have less worries like paying bills and rent and getting to work on time. And I like being off grid. It’s like New Lives in the Wild but in the city. You care less about what people think of you and what you look like. You don’t care if someone sees you pick a fag butt out of a bin. There’s no need to hide behind a mask. I couldn’t anyway, look at my face. But then you have to think about where to sleep, where to get your next meal and where to go for a number two, which your average person doesn’t worry about. That’s stressful too.
Winters are hard. If you’re fortunate you might know someone who’s got a sofa you can sleep on. It’s probably gonna be a crack den or a run down council flat but it’s better than an ice cold pavement or a thin tent set up under some trees in a park. I thought what Crystal Palace did was good, letting some of us sleep at their stadium when it was below freezing. A bit of PR no doubt but still, better than closing your doors.
Saturday nights are bad too. You get a lot of abuse from the drunk partiers who think it’s funny to kick you or slap you, and I’ve heard stories of others being set alight or urinated on. And mornings. That time when you wake up stiff and cold, before the everyday trivialities and necessities and observations crowd your mind and push your dark thoughts back down into the abyss, those painfully clear reflections that terrorise your mind and lurk with evil intent.
We haven’t seen Dan at the shelter for three weeks now. I’m worried to be honest. I’m hoping he’s gone to rehab or somewhere to get himself sorted. I think if the worst has happened and he’s overdosed or been stabbed the news would have filtered down to us by now. It’s a horrible thought but it’s the reality. Or he might have picked up his few belongings and drifted off to another city. Who knows. I really hope he’s ok.