He’s in his early twenties. I’ve been warned that he has a history of violence towards workers and that he’s been banned from most services in Leeds at some stage or another. He’s not really engaged with any agencies at all – he’s exactly the kind of person we should be working with. I’ve been asked to try and get to know him. This requires firstly that I suspend my initial impressions and that I don’t judge him based upon what I have been told. Secondly, it requires patience and letting the process take as long as it needs to.
He’s incredibly suspicious to begin with. The first few weeks amount to “hello”, “goodbye” and my offers of a cigarette, which he occasionally accepts. Then we move on to moaning about how rubbish the weather is. It takes a long time for people to get their head around the idea that you don’t have a hidden agenda – that you’re not after something. I eventually win him over one evening when I shout a warning to him across the road and he avoids being unnecessarily arrested for begging.
I suspect that by this point I did develop an agenda of my own – a curiosity about how he got to be this way. The tabloids readily condemn drug addicts as though everyone’s lives were played out in some neutral space – a scientific vacuum where we’re all afforded the same opportunities. In reality you have to appreciate that this isn’t the case. We aren’t given the same chances and often our options decrease rapidly as time goes on. In my experience there’s usually a good reason behind these things.
One day I’m on my way to visit someone in St James’ hospital and I bump into him outside. He’s come into some money and doesn’t have to beg today. I put the hospital visit off and spend about four hours with him chatting and wandering around town. It’s raining heavily so we spend most of four hours looking for shelter, walking through shopping arcades mocking the ornaments that wealthier people than ourselves waste their money on. As the afternoon moves on my curiosity receives a partial answer from a boy who seems as though he hasn’t spoken to anyone properly in years. He was young when he was taken into care after being on the receiving end of some serious beatings. He developed temper tantrums – one foster carer dealt with this by tying him to a bed and whipping him with garden canes. She recorded the sound of him screaming to play back to him as a threat – he was seven years old at the time.
One evening I was walking home and recognised his black and white jumper lying in the street. I took it home and washed it. When I returned it to him the following day he started having a go at me about how the clean jumper was going to spoil his begging routine. Then we both burst out laughing, I don’t remember seeing him again after that. In the time I’ve worked for Simon numerous people I’ve known have died but there was something that particularly disturbed me about his death. His body was found in the street soaked through with rain. He’d died from an overdose. The coroner’s office contacted his next of kin who refused to identify the body. They said that they were glad that he was dead. He was in his early twenties and it didn’t seem like he’d ever really been given a chance. The tabloids always leave that part out.