Fergus Wilson Panorama documentary – now available on iPlayer22:10 PM, 18th March 2019
About 2 days ago 92
I’ve been a bit quiet of late. Knocked out by a killer dose of what Frazzy calls ‘Man Flu’ and like the rest of you, running around tying up loose ends before Xmas descends on us for 4 days of food, alcohol, sleepiness and family rows.
In a week when Leeds council reports a 200% increase in homelessness applications and Grant Shapps is urging people to ring the local ‘No second night out’ hotlines if they see a rough sleeper, I thought it appropriate to talk about homelessness in the run up to Christmas as opposed to my normal P118 fare.
My Co TRO Steve has given up his Xmas to work for Crisis, alternating dishing up food with dispensing housing advice for those in trouble. He does housing work all year but still finds time to volunteer in the festive season.
I’m not going that far but I don’t mind writing an article. Talking to him today set me thinking about 2 unsung heroes I would like you to know about.
When I was 18 I found myself on what used to be called ‘the dole’, not JSA, it was way before that. Times were different. There were loads of seasonal jobs around, in fact I had just finished 6 months working a summer job as a bus conductor on the 21 bus up the Old Kent Road to London Bridge and Moorgate. You could also get a Xmas job on ‘The Post’ delivering Xmas cards back then.
With so many jobs around I spent some time just hanging out, having a break until one dreadful day I received a letter from the Dole Office, telling me that if I didn’t get a job they would cut my money. Well you can imagine I was furious, who wouldn’t be? I had to get up and go to the job centre, the very cheek of it.
Amongst the depressing racks of cards with job details written on them my eyes reluctantly alighted on a possibility whose pay was considerably more than those on any of the other cards, it was working as a “Resettlement Service Officer Grade II” with the civil service, no previous experience necessary, a job with the DHSS who were at that point generously keeping me in a life of luxury. I duly applied, for the post and got it.
Trouble is, once I turned up on day 1 it was evident that despite its grand title, in reality it was simply working as a bouncer in a doss house. Enhanced sensibilities means that we call them night shelters these days. There aren’t any of these massive institutions left anymore, thank God.
I was stationed in the notorious Camberwell Spike, a 1,200 bed direct access night shelter in Peckham, south east London that was designed by the man who built Dartmoor prison at the same time. The Spike was built as a workhouse, and with the same level of imagination. 40 men to a dormitory, it was called the ‘Spike’ because in the courtyard, even when I was there, there were rows of metal spikes hammered into the ground. Back in the days when they were used, ropes were strung tightly between them and if you couldn’t afford to sleep in the flea bitten dormitories you would simply hook your armpits over the ropes and fall asleep, the rope keeping you off the wet ground, hence the term ‘A night on the spike’.
George Orwell stayed at Camberwell, or Consort Road as it was always officially known, and wrote about it in ‘Down and out in Paris and London’.
It was a terrifying introduction to the world of housing but it did one wonderful thing for me. Those scabby old bearded geezers who slept in doorways, singing drunken songs, the people you rushed by and avoided eye contact with suddenly became human beings who I grew to know and like….even respect.
I learnt so much from my first few weeks in that world that a fear entered my soul, a fear of how close we all are to being there with them, even within my first week in the job. Hearing their stories and talking to them for the first time I realised that we are all only a few pay packets, a broken relationship, a bad decision or a job loss away from those guys. That fear has never left me. Nor has the clear understanding that ending up on the street isn’t just something that happens to other people.
One of our guys had run a successful haulage company and got hit by one of his own trucks which caused brain damage. His wife left him and the business went down the pan. He was never drunk or any trouble, which is why he wasn’t in a hospital but he spent his days scrounging fags and tea and talking to fence posts. I recall his name was Harry Sullivan and he was from South Africa.
Another guy, Ray, had been a carpenter but like Harry acquired a brain injury at work which left him obsessed with the idea that the devil went shopping in Lewisham market.
But I really want to tell you about Georgie Grey. He popped into my head for some reason. This is actually his real name but I figure it is such a long time ago it wont matter to anyone.
Georgie started sleeping rough – ‘Skippering’ they used to call it, when he was 16. I knew him when he was in his mid-70s. A painter and decorator with a drink problem and distinct inability to keep a home but he worked really hard. He was clean, even dapper but had his spells on the drink. He was never anything other than genial and likeable but would never be one of life’s achievers. Meeting him as an old fella I’m not sure it even bothered him.
He died at 76 one Christmas and his only surviving relative was his sister who lived in Glasgow, she travelled down for the funeral.
He was well known and liked by many of the other residents who asked if they could also attend the council run service. We kitted them out in shirts and ties from the store and got them shaved and bathed. I drove them in the dark green reception centre minibus to Hither Green cemetery for the service.
As we all piled out of the van we met this tiny little Scottish OAP who was very polite and genteel. From her conversation it was evident that she had no idea of the life Georgie had lived for 60 years, to her he was just a painter and decorator who lived and worked in London.
She asked us how we knew him and we all froze and looked at each other not knowing what to say. But Belfast Barry came to the rescue, thinking quicker than the rest of us and told her that we were all Georgie’s workmates. She was satisfied with the answer and mightily chuffed that we had all turned out for him.
Belfast Barry. One of the most difficult drunks we had in the place. A man who had given me a black eye on more than one occasion and yet at that moment I could have kissed him. What a wonderful human being, what a kind act. He took Georgie’s sister’s arm and escorted her into the service while we all walked in behind them like a royal wedding of the dispossessed.
I don’t want to sound like I am doing Thought for the Day on Radio 4 but I can honestly say I am proud to have known those guys and it is my connection as a young man to them and their world, their basic decency and humanity in difficult times that makes me, all these years later, still fascinated and involved with housing. Even though today my work is a world away from dodging punches thrown by drunks in the booking-in area of the Spike.
Housing is about people and whether you are a landlord, an agent or a housing adviser it can be useful to bear that in mind. It isn’t about tenancy agreements, or mortgages or, Loan to Value it is about human beings and their lives. It’s that knowledge that keeps me in this business. Despite the fact that housing law is my area of operation, I never forget what it is really about.
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