The book: Why my first children’s book was about homelessness.
In 2014 I wrote my first Children’s book. It was called ‘Homeless’ and, somewhat unsurprisingly, covered that very subject. I have never been homeless, certainly not for any length of time between house moves etc. but I have been on the breadline a few times. When I lived alone in Ilford, East London, I survived for a week on nothing more than boiled rice. There were other times when I was low on funds, unsure as to where the next weeks’ ‘rice’ would be coming from and this all while I was holding down a steady job in the Fire Service and living in my own home. Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m bleating poverty and I’m quite aware that there are many people out there that wouldn’t be able to afford their own rice nor have they their own roof under which to cook it….
But there have also been times in my past when, as I’m sure with perhaps most people, I have not known where the next pay packet was going to come from or in fact whether or not my next regular pay packet would have been enough to get me through yet another long month. So I appreciate that things can be tough and I accept also that I, with my middle class job and two up two down in leafy ol’ Kent should count my blessings. The society we have created for ourselves is funded by taxes, utility bills, mortgage repayments, fuel and food bills etc. that can all too easily run away from us and drag us down into a spiralling vortex of unascendable debt and despair.
Our worth and wealth in this western world of ours is not measured by our achievements, good deeds, or the quality of our friends but is instead weighed up in cold hard cash, stock options, the latest iPad and the shiniest of shiny luxury cars. What would the world be like if we financially rewarded people who worked long hours struggling over yet another influx of trauma patients? Or if we honoured a Mother (or Father) who refused to give up when abandoned and left to raise several children on their own? What if those who clean our streets and empty our bins were then those who cruised the streets after work in their shiny luxury cars rather than those who work in pristine air-conditioned and luxuriously furnished offices? I know…this is a concept more at home in a dystopian sci-fi novel but…wouldn’t it change the way people react to and treat one another?
Ok…so…have I sold everything I own and given it to the poor? No. Do I spend every waking moment marching the streets in search of someone to give my left over sandwiches to? No…But I do try to give the odd homeless person my spare change, I do try to smile at them at least and make them feel that they’ve not been totally abandoned and are still visible. I still remember what it was like when I lived in London and saw dozens and dozens of homeless people lining the streets quickly scurrying along before the local police could move them on so as to ‘protect’ commuters from having to suffer such indignities as having to pass them on their way to Starbucks for a double-latte-with extra cream-cappa-‘spreso-fizz-whiz-bangachino!
I also remember that once when I worked in Ilford we were once called to ‘Bushes alight’ near the City of London crematorium. When we arrived we looked through a small area of surrounding trees and came upon a homeless guy. My Station Officer at the time, a very nice gentleman yet overly officious Officer, allowed the man to continue to warm himself by his fire without extinguishing it. This was very out of character for him but it would have been a very cold heart that didn’t allow this fellow man some warmth. We, of course, ensured that the fire was far enough away from foliage and trees and confirmed with him that he would not place any more fuel on the fire. Our shift had almost ended so, when I got home, I took some blankets, bought some fish and chips and a hot tea and took them back to where we’d seen this man. It felt odd doing this and I knew at the time that I’d dipped my toes over a professional line but I couldn’t help myself. I remember he took the tea, began to drink it and looked at the blankets almost with bemusement. He was a very mild mannered guy and I wasn’t sure if he’d always been like this or that being exposed to hardship and the elements for so long had warn some part of him away. To be fair, with hindsight, waterproofs would likely have been more appropriate but I had acted on impulse. I just asked if he was okay and sat with him for a while so as not to appear rude and he began to tell me about how he’d had some problems at home and that he’d split up with his wife. He hadn’t seen his children in many years but hoped they were okay. He also stated that they were better off without him. His Northern accent suggested at the time that he may be a distance from home. Again, I know now that my meagre gift to him was probably of little use but at the time I just wasn’t able to do nothing.
A few years ago I again found myself slightly ‘financially embarrassed’ and so I relocated to the single persons’ accommodation above Westminster Fire Station for a time. I’d always worked in or around London but had never lived so centrally before. It gave me a much more honest understanding of London and its’ inhabitants including the local Homeless community. Often I’d come home late from work and would pass a group of homeless guys being handed soup, sandwiches and hot drinks just off the beaten track. They always seemed grateful and, for those who could speak English, were also very chatty with those who served them. Some after all had perhaps come here seeking the gold-paved-roads they were promised at home only to then find themselves here, without work, without a home and with very little in the way of a future ahead of them.
The guy who used to sell the Big Issue near my place was called Dave. A bearded, cheery guy who was always polite and unassuming. I always gave him my change when I could, sometimes a hot drink and on a few occasions a sandwich. He was always grateful without fawning. As my time in Westminster came to an end I saw him one last time. He said that he was hoping to get a placement in a halfway house soon and that they may even have a small job lined up for him locally. I was happy to be leaving him knowing he’d been given such positive news…but knowing what he was like, I wonder sometimes if he was just being polite and was trying to make me feel good so as not to worry about him. I guess I’ll never know.
I volunteered to work at the charity Crisis one Christmas whilst I lived in Westminster and the thing that really struck me was the type of people you meet there. I remember one guy in particular who spoke quite eloquently and came across as being very learned. He lived, homelessly, with his Mother. He was extremely polite and was quite matter-of-fact about his predicament. He took great pleasure from finishing a copy of the Guardian whilst he was at the centre and was touchingly grateful at the effort being made by all of the staff.
And I think the most touching of memories I have about living in London, and of the local homeless people, is of one particular lady who often wandered around in an overcoat and beanie hat pushing her little trolley of chattels as she searched for somewhere to rest her feet and for something spare to eat. I watched her on one particular occasion (I’m an avid people watcher I’m afraid) and remember all of the smartly dressed people scuttling past her without seeing her or even acknowledging her existence. She walked over to the corner of a building, looked down, shook her head and tutted. She then leaned down and began to pick up shards of glass that were strewn on the pavement. I don’t remember her exact words but I’d been walking home and had been nearing her so was able to hear her mention to herself that she didn’t want anyone hurting themselves. It then dawned on me that all of these commuters were somehow, unknowingly, guests of hers. All of these people in smartly pressed jackets and expensive dresses were walking through her home on the way to work whilst she, being the good host that she was, tended to a smashed beer bottle discarded by one of her less respectful guests the night before.
And so it was that I felt it necessary to talk about my experiences with homeless people and to highlight their struggle. As a budding writer, how better for me to do this than to write about it. I chose a children’s story simply because I had decided to write a book for my God Son so chose to base it on him and his Sister. In the book they meet up and befriend a group of homeless people, some of whom are based on people I met during my time in London. The two main characters are Boris, who is loosely based on Dave, and the other is Beanie, who is based on…well, you can work it out.
For those of you who would like to read the book, Homeless, it’s available on Amazon, but, then again, why not just put the money you would have spent on that book aside and instead give it to a homeless person some time?
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