Freedom vs health

There are homeless people living in the Morrisons carpark in Blackburn. Their camp is on the second floor of the parking lot. There are no tents in the camp: just duvets on the wet ground, clothes in bags and trolleys, and sleeping bags spread out on the duvets.

I wouldn’t choose it – but there are guys drinking near the camp who say that people do choose it. Ed, 30, says that. Ed says the people who live in the camp could choose a hostel or shelter – “there are services in the town that can put a roof over the head for one night” – but they don’t. That’s because hostels mean strict rules and restrictions. In the camp, people can do as they like. Doing as they like often means getting blasted on spice – as Ed speaks, two camp residents suddenly stand up and leave, saying “we’ve got to sort something out” as they go – but that’s their choice and people set store by their right to make it.

Steve, 55, lives at the camp (I talked to Steve earlier). He says he’s been at the camp on and off for a year. “Gets violent sometimes, but that’s all part of the territory, isn’t it?” Steve says that he was recently diagnosed with Alzeheimer’s. His time at the camp might end soon because of that. “I think sooner or later, they will want us to go into sheltered accommodation…can’t drink in there… I like a smoke.”

“People do what they want to do…you know what I mean?” Ed says. I do. I’ve seen it a lot in austerity: people at the end of various ropes who decide that freedom beats lockdown. People in this part of the picture have been making that choice for years.

Ed has himself chosen a hostel and its rules this time around. Ed and his girlfriend Pat, 23, and another friend, Rob, who is in his 20s, live at the Salvation Army hostel in the middle of Blackburn. Another friend, Mark, has his own flat. All 4 come to the Morrisons carpark regularly to drink. “I’m an alcoholic,” Ed says. Rob says that he’s an alcoholic, too.

There are rules at the hostel – no drinking, no drugs and no sex, by the sounds of things. “We’re not allowed in each other’s rooms, or anything like that,” Pat says. “If I got caught in his (Ed’s) room, we’d be in trouble.”

“Even if I go near her,” Ed says. He laughs. He says the hostel is “like a 55-bedroom holiday camp… basically, it’s like when you see prison – like you get wings [different wings in a building]. It’s camera-d up everywhere – staff room, staff walkabout places…[you have] a single room there, lock on the door. [You’re] very safe there…toilets shared and you’ve got a main canteen…” Ed says that the hostel isn’t bad. “It’s all right… they give you meals every day and all that…I’ve been in there [in the hostel] like 3 times. It’s because of mad shit I’ve done in my life…”

For Ed, the mad shit involved working like the clappers in pubs and bars, and drinking himself to oblivion. Bubble [mephedrone] was Ed’s other poison: “…when you take a line of that stuff – ah…” The plan now – it’s the plan for everyone in the hostel, rather than Ed’s plan personally – is to achieve sobriety and and independence. “You leave there [the hostel] – you’re meant to go into your own place… independent living.”

“Can you do that?” I ask Ed. “Can you afford it?”

“No,” Ed says cheerfully.

Ed has parked the idea of sobriety for the time being. Ed, Pat, Rob and Mark take me to the Sally Army hostel via an off-licence where they buy more cans. At the hostel, they point out the security cameras. We talk in the hostel entrance until a staff member comes out and asks people to take the beers elsewhere. People head to the cathedral grounds. It’s raining, but nobody cares. They’re free to do as they like.


Transcript of Blackburn interviews, January 2020 (names changed on request):

At the Morrisons carpark camp on the second floor, there are two guys sitting on wet bedding. They are very out of it. They’re looking at a phone. They stand up and leave suddenly: “we’ve got to sort something out.”

Ed, Pat, Rob and Mark are drinking next to the bedding. Rob comes up to me. “Do you want a Haribo?” he says. He has a packet.

Me: Are you living up here as well?

Rob: Nah. I don’t live here.

Ed: Are you a journalist? So how come you’re coming up here?

Me: Because I heard that you guys were living up here [in the Morrisons carpark]… and I write about housing and benefits.

Rob: Some people live on here.

Ed: Do you know what… we went away for 5 years, yeah, and we come back to find that people are actually living here…do you know what the funny thing is, though… people do what they want to do… there are services in the town that can put a roof over the head for one night, but they do… do you know what I mean. Continue reading

Decay like you wouldn’t believe – which century are we in?

Don’t know how to put this without sounding like I’m overdoing the drama:

I’ve talked with a couple of street homeless people recently who are so badly affected by ill health and homelessness that they look as though they’ve turned up from penury circa 1850.

Dirt, sores and decay: if it wasn’t for people’s modern (if rotting) clothing, you’d wonder which century you’d crashed in.

I find this timewarp disturbing. You see a human corrosion that belongs in historical photos.

On Wednesday morning, I talked to a youngish woman on Fairfield Street by Manchester Picadilly.

She was holding a dirty red sleeping bag. The woman was small, pale and had lost some of her teeth. Her thin hair was tied back.

Her hand, though.

I asked the woman how she managed on the streets in winter.

The woman said the cold had been hard. She still had trouble with her hands, because they were always wet and cold.

She showed me her left hand. It was swollen twice the size of a normal hand and covered in sores and yellow scabs – obviously infected.

I said, “oh my god.”

“I should go to the hospital,” she said.

“You need some antibiotics,” I said.

We talked.

Like everyone you speak with on the Manchester streets, the woman was hoping to raise the £17 or so that people need for a hostel bed for the night.

The woman said that she was banned from going into Picadilly station. The transport police moved her and others on from the station if they got too near.

She said that grating had been put up around some buildings so that people couldn’t sleep under them.


Wtf is politics doing?

How can Brexit be more pressing than this decay?

Can I claim benefits when I’m homeless? Getting the feeling that people can’t find clear answers to this.

I’ve recently noticed a real increase in the number of people coming to my site on search terms re: how to claim benefits when homeless.

Am thinking this could indicate:

  • an increasing number of people who are homeless and in need of benefit help
  • an increasing number of people who can’t easily get the advice on homelessness and benefits that they need

Picking out search terms is hardly a formal measure of a trend, of course, and I’m not talking a mass of visits on these phrases, but I still feel like pointing them out.

Snapshot from this week:

  • can you use job centre as care of address
  • is there a way to apply for benefits when homeless
  • how to apply for benefits when im homeless
  • should dwp tell homeless people to use jobcentres as address
  • can the homeless claim benefits do the homeless get benefits
  • homeless people and job centre plus investigation
  • how much money can you get if you are homeless
  • benefits and homeless
  • can social services take your kids if you are homeless

etc. More every day really.

64, homeless, sleeping on a couch that a “friend” charges money for…the Tories should rot in jail for all of this

Posted below is another transcript from interviews with food parcel recipients at Oldham foodbank on 5 December.

This interview made me wonder again where our world went so disgustingly wrong. Plenty of people wonder about that, of course, but there are times when you really ask yourself.

We have Theresa May and her gruesome cabinet playing Brexit and stuffing themselves with holiday food, and then we have people who literally eat and sleep on the pavement.

It’s unfathomable that such excess exists alongside such poverty in the modern age. We don’t need to do this. We know how to feed, clothe and house people. We have the resources to do those things. We just don’t. I can’t tell you how much I hate “reformers” who insist that an individual’s extreme poverty is entirely that individual’s responsibility. Personal responsibility is neither here nor there in such situations. Societal responsibility is the part that matters. That’s the part that is missing. We’re in a place where extreme poverty persists and is allowed to persist.

The Oldham interview was with Roy, 64.

Roy said he was homeless – not a situation you particularly want for a 64-year-old. Roy’s clothes were unwashed and crumpled, and his glasses smeared and greasy. He was working on a crossword when I sat down at his table.

“Cruciverbalism – that’s what crosswords are,” he said. “Cruci – cross. Verbalism – words.”

Roy wasn’t sure which benefits he received. He got a payment each month, so the benefit might have been Universal Credit. Roy said that he was staying on and off in Chadderton on the couch of a “friend” who charged him for the privilege (no doubt the repulsive Theresa May would say Roy’s occasional access to that couch meant he wasn’t homeless):

“He [the friend] is not a very kindhearted person. He’s always after money and I’ve got no money. [I] got some benefits. They only come in once a month. Me bank balance is now down to £1.99 … I don’t know when I get paid again. I have to go to the bank again to check me statement. I don’t know. It might be two weeks.”

Roy was waiting to speak to one of the foodbank volunteers. He hoped that she could help him find accommodation that night. He was worried about having to sleep outside, as well he might have been. Oldham freezes in winter. There was ice on the streets that day:

“The lady over there [the foodbank worker] – she’s very helpful. She’s like a careworker. I wanted to see her today, because I’m homeless outside… it’s not nice in this weather….I got evicted from me last place…bedroom tax. Got evicted for not paying it.”

I don’t know if Roy had a drinking or addiction problem. Doesn’t matter if he did. Backstories interest me less and less. I can’t be bothered picking through people’s histories for evidence that people do or don’t deserve the basics (which is the main reason anyone picks through back stories these days). Everyone deserves the basics. All that matters is the present – that there are people who live in dreadful states while others have everything. Who cares what has gone before in people’s lives?

I tell you this – I doubt Damian Green will pay this kind of price for his past.

Interview transcript (Oldham foodbank, Tuesday 5 December 2017)

“I come here at least probably once a week. People are nice, the staff are nice and the lady over there… she’s very helpful. She’s like a careworker and I wanted to see her today because I’m homeless outside… yeah… it’s not nice in this weather.

I got evicted from me last place, so…bedroom tax. Got evicted for not paying it…

See – the council come around. I lived in…the place where I was evicted from was a two-bedroom place, two-bedroom cottage flat, me and me mother.

Me mother become very ill and had to go into a carehome, so that left one bedroom empty. During this time, a council come around to insulate the loft. They went up there and it took them a week or something like that, but up in the loft, just above where the steps go, I had been saving some money out of me benefits to pay for me mother’s funeral because I knew that she wasn’t going to get better. Continue reading

“I got sanctioned nine months altogether – sanctioned, sanctioned, sanctioned.” And £2k rent arrears. No money for fares to work. More stories from the foodbank

Below is another transcript from an interview made at Oldham foodbank on 5 December.

I post this as an example of the lives that people without money must lead when they’re trying to get things together (after prison in this case).

This interview is also an example of somebody who has decided to put distance between himself and the jobcentre as he re-organises his life. I find this a lot. People sign on at jobcentres, because they need the money (such as it is), but that’s the sole reason they attend. They don’t expect support, or help to rebuild from jobcentres and the DWP. They expect aggro and a lot of cat and mouse around sanctions. No more and no less. That’s it.

This interview was with Terry, 43.

Terry was an ex-heroin and crack addict who’d recently done time in Risley for burglary. He said that he’d been in and out of jail since he was a teenager – mainly for robberies which paid for his habit. Terry said that he’d cleaned up in jail and hadn’t used for a couple of years.

Terry had a small flat in the Spring Street hostel in Oldham. He also had casual work as a labourer across sites in Greater Manchester. He was meeting a friend the next day who had a day’s work for Terry at another site.

That was the good news.

The not-so-good news was the number of obstacles that Terry faced getting to these jobs.

A charity had paid for the work boots, hard hat and work clothes that Terry needed for labouring work on construction sites. Terry said the jobcentre had not helped with these costs.

He shrugged when I asked why. I see that shrug a lot. Could have been that the jobcentre didn’t offer to pay for the clothes as it should have. Could have been that Terry kept the jobcentre at arm’s length and sorted things out himself where he could. Terry did not view the DWP as a go-to place for anyone who wanted to rehabilitate. Terry said he’d been sanctioned three times in the past for three months at a time.

“The dole should be doing all that [paying for work clothes], but they didn’t…the charity paid for my CSCS [worksite accreditation card]. They paid for me work boots, work pants, work coat work gloves, hard hat, everything. They got me everything to be able to work. Without any one of those things, I wouldn’t been able to go.”

Terry also had trouble meeting travel costs to and from work sites. The jobcentre would pay for his travel, but only as a reimbursement if he paid up front. That’s always a problem for people who can’t afford fares.

“They will help you get to work – but afterwards. If I am working with my mate tomorrow and it’s in Salford, I haven’t got a penny. So I can’t get there. If I had the money and had the bus fare and showed them [the jobcentre] the ticket two weeks later…[they’d pay]. They won’t give it you up front.”

Continue reading

Some addicts can’t be “fixed” or “cured.” Provide hostels and wet houses for them. Lay off the sanctimony

Time to share a few observations on that sanctimonious school of thought which says a) people shouldn’t give money to street homelessness people because they’ll buy booze and b) that the money should instead go to charities which “help” street drinkers.

I LOATHE that line. It implies that street homeless people aren’t entitled to the autonomy everyone else enjoys when it comes to spending/wasting money. It also implies that people who won’t/can’t stop using should be sidelined.

Which they must not be.

Let’s have a story:

Here is a picture I took recently of James, 50.

James is from Oldham. I met James in September last year. Since then, we’ve had lunch and played pool on the free table at the Ark in Oldham every month or so. I spoke to James last night. We’ll meet up again on Friday.

James has been in and out of street homelessness for years. I’m guessing that the drinking has everything to do with that. We’ve talked about it. In the time I’ve known him, James has been been banned from malls and various soup kitchens for aggro when pissed. When I saw James at the end of September, he was street homeless again. He’d just been turfed out of the temporary accommodation he’d lived in for several months:

“Don’t know what happened. The landlord come round last week and told us all to get out.”

Recently, James took a thrashing, as you can see. I met him at a Sally army lunch the day after it happened. He still had blood on his clothes. He had two black eyes, bruises down both sides of his face, a deep slash across his nose and a burn on his scalp where his head had been set alight for some reason. He wouldn’t show me the burn. He kept pulling his hat down.

“They told me it [the burn] is the shape of Ireland,” James said.

He also said, “I’m sick of people talking about it.”

Continue reading

If austerity really is over (ha), everyone must benefit. That includes people we’ve been told to hate.

Have been thinking about the much-discussed end to austerity and public sector cuts ever since the politically-resuscitated (regurgitated?) Michael Gove floated the concept: “we…. need to take account of legitimate public concerns about ensuring that we properly fund public services,” blah, blah, etc.

An end to austerity would be tremendous, of course. Can’t wait, etc. I only hope that EVERYONE gets to share in the largesse. The time has come to throw out poisonous notions of Deserving and Undeserving poor. God knows that’s achieved nothing apart from division. Everyone is deserving and must be seen as such. When I say “everyone,” I mean even people who successive governments have made very sure are unpopular with taxpayers. “Everyone” must include the people that the Daily Mail et al like to dismiss as dead weight – the single mums, the people with drug and alcohol problems and people who don’t, for whatever reason, work (or vote). I tend to feel that when the political class talks about righting austerity’s wrongs, the recurring themes are stagnant pay, and funding the NHS, the police, social care, education and housing. Fair enough. Those services are vital.

There are other people, though. There are people whose lives have been wrecked by public sector cuts – particularly because the DWP and council frontline services they must use have been outsourced, reorganised, and/or cut past function – but who are less electorally pertinent than, say, nurses and the police. These are the people who have been abandoned to our era’s most spectacularly callous and defective bureaucracies. These are people who are judged harshly for their circumstances and often left with nothing to live on as a result. I trust our new wave of Tory austerity-relaxers will throw them a lifeline as well. Bit more carrot and less stick, and all that.

It is with this in mind that I take you towards Oldham now, to the South Chadderton foodbank where I spent several hours last week. I talked there with people who’d come in for food parcels because they’d run out of money.

I spoke with two women at length. One woman had lost income through benefit sanctions. The other had no income, because she’d failed a sickness benefit assessment, was mired in appeals and had no idea what to do next. Both women were having a hell of a time trying to make sense of the endless letters, cut income and confusing instructions that people are given by the DWP in our punitive and unhelpful austerity age. These people could have been anyone, really, in the sense that I see this confusion and incomprehension all the time.

The first woman was a young mum called Emma.

Emma was 31. She had three kids aged 13, five and six months. She told me a story I’ve heard variations on before. Emma said that her Income Support payments had been reduced, because she’d missed two work-related interviews at her jobcentre. I found out later that these interviews may not even have been mandatory. This sort of thing happens, though. People are told by jobcentre staff that they have to attend work activities or courses when they don’t. I’ve seen that more than once over the years, as I say. It’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that DWP systems are a shambles.

Emma said she’d missed the workforce interviews because she didn’t realise they were taking place.

“They’re every three months now (the work-related interviews at the jobcentre). They used to be every 12 months. It’s if you miss the appointments, that was why…

“I thought they were going to sanction me. I thought they were going to stop all my money, but they haven’t. They’ve just reducted [sic] so much money off of my benefits.”

Emma said that she hadn’t appealed the decision to cut her benefits, because she didn’t know that she could appeal.

“They said when I went to the jobcentre, when you’ve attended your workforce interview, they [the payments] will go back to normal.”

Emma doubted these workforce interviews would lead to work. I’ve attended enough of these work-related meetings to doubt the point of them myself. At best, work-related interviews are box-ticking exercises: proof by jobcentres for the DWP that people who sign on have been encouraged to look for jobs. At worst, they’re a means of keeping benefit recipients on a short leash – of making people return repeatedly to their jobcentres where they know they’re being watched. Here’s a story I did about such pointless demands being put on people who signed on at the North Kensington jobcentre: a place that was harsh on benefit recipients in my experience and that is in the mainstream news re: signon demands at the moment after the Grenfell disaster.

Continue reading

You don’t cure addiction by insisting that addicts are trash

This post is about drug and alcohol testing for people who claim benefits – and a worldwide government enthusiasm for encouraging loathing of addicts and alcoholics who claim.

I had a few thoughts on this a week or so back when reading about a ridiculous drugs-testing-for-benefit-claimants concept that Australia’s caring government (ha) plans to trial.

You read about such targeting of drug and alcohol users a lot, of course. The general global theme is that you treat addiction best by treating addicts harshly (and, needless to say, that there are votes in being seen to treat addicts harshly). Here is America and Australia extolling drugs testing for people on benefits. Here are various UK press outlets moaning (in chorus – I presume they all took delivery of the same press release or story on the same day) about the number of addicts and alcoholics who claim Employment and Support Allowance. Pursuit of the marginalised is a global game. There are no borders when it comes to free movement of ideas such as screwing social security recipients for political gain. The message is as clear as it is hopelessly simplified: all addicts take the piss, so cut them loose. It’s a message which is particularly suited to our times: mean-spirited, small-minded, based in vindictiveness rather than fact, and the exact right size for a tweet. Long gone are the days when society accepted that there were some people it should just support and had grownup discussions about that.


I’ve been thinking about this, because I’ve been spending a lot time in Oldham recently with Vance, 43 and James, 50 – two blokes who’ve been in and out of street homelessness and trouble at least in part on account of the drink over the years. Vance says he’s done the odd stretch in Strangeways. Both guys have been banned from malls and lunchrooms from time to time on behavioural grounds. Whatever. That’s how addiction and alcoholism can look. There’s good in there as well, as there often is. Vance, for example, invited James to stay with him in Vance’s housing association flat when James was street homeless. Vance found James sleeping on the concrete landing outside his flat and invited James in.

“He was sleeping outside on the landing. I can’t see that, because I’ve been homeless meself…I did if for years meself.” You find a mix of good and bad behaviour right across the social classes, as any AA or Al-Anon attendee will tell you. The only difference between well-appointed addicts and guys like Vance and James is that well-appointed addicts and/or their families have resources to paper over the cracks.

Pool table at the Salt Cellar

Image: At the pool table at a Salt Cellar lunch

Back to the story.

Lately, there’s been a twist to things. Vance has started to become ill. On some level or another over the past few months, we’ve all been watching Vance get sicker and sicker from the booze. I’ve known Vance and James since about October last year. We talk on the phone and meet up in Oldham’s free lunchrooms to play pool and to make snide remarks about the world. I’ve enjoyed this, because I like Vance’s and James’ company, we’ve had a laugh and there’s much to be said for snide remarks.

The regular meetings, though, mean I’ve been in a position to note Vance’s deteriorating health over the months. He lost an awful lot of weight very suddenly. By March, he’d reached skeletal. He was shaky and clearly concerned. He sometimes didn’t turn up to lunch, because he was in pain. His health seemed very bad on some days and better on others. He’d improve and deteriorate and deteriorate and improve. That’s the way things rolled for a while. I’m not a doctor, or any sort of addiction expert, so I don’t suppose I know exactly what I’m looking at.

I do know about conversations and events that stick with me though. There have been a few of those:

“I got to cut it [the drinking] back, but it gets worse when I do,” Vance told me one Tuesday in March as we walked to the King Street tram stop after a lunchroom meeting. That day, Vance and James were drinking Frosty Jack’s from the big plastic bottles. Vance said that the week before, he had tried to go without a drink for a bit. He was in pain and he’d lost a great deal of weight, as I say. Hospital appointments had been booked. So, Vance cut his drinking down for a day – and promptly, he said, had a seizure on the concrete in the Oldham shopping precinct. He was still upset about that, as well he might be. People don’t find illness, seizures, or – if you will – concerns about impending death easier to accept just because they’re addicts or drinkers. Certainly, those things are not easier to watch, or hear about first-hand, just because a person is an addict. There’s nothing like sitting in a cold tram-stop with someone who is damned with or without the bottle of rotgut he’s clutching to leave you with a dim view of governments that want to abandon people in these situations for political gain. Continue reading

Meanwhile in the real world… rent arrears and Universal Credit

For all those wondering about causes of homelessness and housing problems in Manchester, Oldham, etc…

Below is another example of fallout from government’s brilliant (not) decision to pay rent money directly to tenants rather than landlords when people claim Universal Credit. I’m working through a collection of recordings I’ve made this year with people who have benefit and rent problems. Thought I’d post this one, because it’s an example of the sort of silent fall that people in the real world continue to take while elections rumble on and online factions scream at each other:

A couple of weeks ago, I visited one of the Oldham lunchrooms which is attended people who have benefits, housing, addiction and money problems. A charity gives out a free lunch at this location every week. I go along to talk with people as they have their lunch. I’m being vague about the location and charity on this occasion, because the woman I recorded the conversation with below said that she already had problems with people in the area following her and targeting her:

“I’ve had every Tom, Dick and Harry in my flat… They’ve robbed phones, robbed money and they even took the food out of my cupboard… it’s me own fault with my head being a bit…”

This woman was small, frail-looking and cold – as in not dressed warmly enough. She’d come to see if there was a winter coat among the free clothes that the charity sometimes hands out. I took some pictures of her in a coat she found. I might pixelate and post them another time.

Anyway. This woman – let’s call her Kelly – was 49. Kelly was in trouble with rent arrears. She said that she her debt was £400 and counting. She also said that she had a letter which told her that eviction was on the cards. Her conversation was hard to follow in places. Kelly was confused, under the influence and obviously unwell. She was struggling to cope, she said, after a recent bereavement.

Kelly said that her rent situation started to become a problem when she was moved onto Universal Credit. She’s paid a lump sum of benefit money directly each month and must pay her rent out of that.

Kelly said that she was finding this level of management too hard:

“What they have done is they have changed my benefit. They put me on Universal Credit. [I’m] struggling. I got to pay the rent and I’m in arrears. They pay me every month.”

I asked Kelly why money management was difficult for her. She kept saying, “because of my bereavement… It’s my head… because of my bereavement this year…

“My rent is about £380 a month. I need to talk about a repayment plan… with my bereavement and that, my head’s all… I haven’t got children.”

The conversation was hard to follow, as I say. These conversations often are.

Continue reading

“Rich get richer and poor get poorer… The greed is becoming demented greed.” More views from people on benefits

More views on politics and benefits outside the bubble:

Each Tuesday from 11am, a group called The Ark puts on a few hours of free sandwiches, coffee, cake and bible readings at the Salt Cellar resource building in Oldham. There’s a pool table in the room which is popular as well. People from all walks attend. Some are in and out of street homelessness. Some have alcohol and drug addictions. Some have mental health problems. All worry about money.

A sign at the salt cellar

Image: A sign at the Salt Cellar

Many people at the sessions are affected by welfare reform. They have problems with housing, benefits and paperwork. I attend the Tuesday sessions every few weeks to record interviews on these and other issues. We talk about all kinds of topics: politics, Brexit, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, benefits, service cuts, housing, street homelessness, addiction, jail, family, aspirations – the works.

The transcript in the second part of this post is from a February interview with James, 50 and Paul, 47. I’ve spoken with James and Paul at length before.

For this post, I wanted to ask the guys for their views of people who must live exclusively on benefits – people such as themselves. Everyone else in the world has very strong, and often very negative, views of people who receive benefits. I like to ask people on the rough end what they think.

This can be hard. Not everyone wants to talk politics. Westminster is a world away much of the time.

When I arrived at the Salt Cellar, James and his friend Vance, 43, were out the front of the building, pushing bottles and belongings into their rucksacks.

Vance, James and I have known each other for about six months (you can read more about their stories here). They often ring me very late at night for a chat.

We all laughed as they put their bottles in their backpacks.

“It’s my Lucozade,” James grinned.

We sometimes meet outside the building. People who drink must drink their alcohol outside and behave when they go in. They don’t always. They get chucked out of lunchrooms if they’re pissed and/or aggressive, or when they bring in booze in backpacks. Different lunchrooms have different views on enforcement.

I’m for turning a blind eye to the boozing. I understand that people who run lunchrooms need to keep order – people bring babies and little kids to these places and you can’t have people smacked out on spice or booze or whatever – but there are dimensions that are hard to ignore. Sickness is one. Vance is definitely getting sicker. He’s lost so much weight in the past six months that I don’t like to ask him how he’s going any more. It’s obvious how Vance is going. His health sits in the mind. He’s skeletal. He looks pinched and pained around the eyes.

There was something else going on around Vance’s eyes that Tuesday, too. He had deep, bloody scratches under both of them.

“Jesus,” I said, pointing at Vance’s face. “What happened?”

Vance laughed. “Fuckers threw a cat at me,” he said. “If I find that cat, I’m going to fucking eat it.”

“He coulda lost his eyes,” James said. “That cat is really scared of the owner.”

“Bet it is,” I said.

Vance and James have neighbour problems. They live in a central Oldham flat. Vance was placed there by the local homelessness office in 2016 after years on the streets. James has lived at Vance’s for several months. Before he moved into Vance’s place, James was street homeless. Vance found James trying to sleep on the concrete landing outside of Vance’s flat, so Vance invited James in to stay. Says Vance: “He [James] was sleeping outside on the landing. I can’t see that, because I’ve been homeless meself…It is very cold and wet. You can’t sleep.”

There are dealers, users and all sorts in the neighbourhood. Smooth sailing is rare. A few months ago, a bunch of guys beat James up and threw him out of the flat (you can read about that here). I don’t know how the cat incident came about. I do remember that a couple of weeks after it, James turned up to lunch with a black eye.

“Relationship breakdown,” people usually say when I ask how people end up street homeless.

Pool table at the Salt Cellar

Image: Pool table at the Salt Cellar

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