You can smell John from several metres away. As I walk up to him, I nearly gag. The stench of sweat, beer and dirt, is overpowering. Worse inside confined spaces, it’s not so bad outside.
John has been homeless for a long time. These days he’s in a hostel, and he says he’s waiting for a flat to be assigned to him, so he can get off the streets.
For now, he’s a regular in the local square, sitting on his own, not mixing with other homeless people. There seems to be a pecking order even among the indigent, and he’s at the bottom.
There’s another probable reason why he’s ignored. It is extremely difficult to understand a word he says, and not only because of the thick Scottish accent he speaks in.
His mind seems to have a loose grip on what is going on around him, and he shifts topics rapidly and regularly, as we talk.
It is hard to hold a conversation. Years of drinking and drug abuse have taken their toll on his sanity. Mental health is fragile among all the longterm homeless, but for John especially so.
Sometimes we are able to give him something to eat. But the last time we tried, he had wandered off when we finally returned with his cup of tea and sandwich.
He is so restless and agitated, unable to sit still for very long. The tension in his body and his mind prevent him from getting any peace.
He says he used to be in the military, the Parachute Regiment. A high proportion of street-dwellers used to be in the services.
These are often so institutionalised by army life that they can’t adjust to civvy street, or so traumatised by violence they can’t settle into regular working life.
Alcohol functions as an anaesthetic to deaden the inner pain. But it also incapacitates them from taking action to sort out their problems.
John’s grey hair is matted, and his beard encrusted with food and dried booze; and he’s been wearing the same clothes for weeks.
We haven’t seen him for a while. I wonder if I have chased him away? I tried to talk to him about the smell, because it was putting off those who were trying to help him.
I inquired if his hostel had showers, and if he had enough clothing. I asked if it was alright for us to get some fresh clothes for him, and we put together a package during the next week.
But he has vanished again. Did I offend him? I don’t really know what goes on inside his head. Serving the poor is not glamorous work, because the poor are not glamorous.
I also ask myself whether his flat, which he regularly talks about, is real. Has the hostel really arranged accommodation for him? Or is it just a fantasy?
And if he does get it, will he have the necessary social skills needed to look after it, and himself?
John is back. I have also managed to talk to his key worker at the hostel. She says he does indeed have a flat being prepared for him, and she is trying to speed up the settlement process. I hope they put some support in place for him, to help him develop the routines and life skills he will need if he is to maintain this fragile independence. It will, however, mean moving some way from where we are, so we shall not be in touch with him anymore. Among all the increasing number of homeless people in London, he is only one, but one whom I have got to know by name, and who has become a part of my lives.