I meet Paul Thomas, 40, when I nearly tread on his hand. He’s sitting on the pavement by the door of the big petrol station on Shoreditch High Street. He asks everybody who enters the store if they can spare any change. He looks tired, unkempt and – well, a bit on the sad side, as we all probably would.
Doubtless, the likes of Iain Duncan Smith and the gone-and-largely-forgotten James Purnell would admire Paul’s can-do approach to life on a benefit: although horribly (and clinically) depressed and reeling from the loss of his job as a maintenance worker, he gets out to beg most afternoons.
I imagine that Duncan Smith would think that Thomas a great candidate for a few weeks’ compulsory gutter-cleaning here and there. He’s already sitting around on the side of the road, so the state wouldn’t even have to fund his commute. Thus millennium society restores the halt and the lame.
What Thomas needs, of course, is a proper job and help finding one. He liked working. He says he worked for ten years as a caretaker at the Trinity church round the corner before he was made redundant about 18 months ago.
“It can happen really easily that you’re out here. If you told me two years ago that I would be out here, I would never have thought that.” It is hardly surprising that depression has got the better of him. It nearly gets the better of me while we chat. If he had a reasonable job and enough to live on, the rest would probably take care of itself.
Right now, Thomas’ day rises or falls on the altruism of Shoreditch and Brick lane locals. He says that he collects a sickness benefit payment of about £40 a week and has been on that for about a year (I think he may mean JSA, but never mind that – the point is that he doesn’t get much). Unfortunately, his bills come to about £80 a week. Thus the cap-in-hand appearances outside the petrol station.
“It’s humiliating. I’ve got two children – one 22 and one 18. They are always asking for money. Money, money, money. I do this, because I can’t live on £40 a week. I’m not going to go around robbing other people.”
Other people rob him, though. A smack in the face from a stranger is a regular feature of life on this scene. Thomas says two people came up last night when he was sitting on the High Street and started kicking him and telling him to hand over his change. There isn’t much by way of complaints process for Thomas – he says he was going to report the assault, but decided to give it a miss in case he was arrested for begging.
He is amused (sort of) to think there are people who believe that his mode of existence is a choice. I find it funny myself. Who would choose to grovel for pennies and regularly take a kick in the teeth for them? Benefit fraud may be a reality, but it is hardly this guy’s reality. He’s unwell, unemployed and in freefall. Who would choose his poverty and exposure? What sort of politician would shape a narrative around the inference that the likes of Thomas choose the lives they have?
Like many people I talk to at his end of the equation, Thomas is concerned with distribution, and in an aggressive way. He says the country’s biggest problem is that government spends ‘too much time looking after foreigners. What about the older people in this country and the disabled people? They ask for money from people who don’t have it. Charity does begin at home.’
I wonder if charity begins anywhere at the moment, although I think I can where it ended. Labour was in government when I spoke to this guy and James Purnell was busy ploughing the turf for Duncan Smith. Evil policy for evil times.