I remember the first time I went begging. I wasn’t homeless. Not all homeless people beg and not all ‘beggars’ are homeless. By the way, I detest the word ‘beg’ but I will use it for these purposes. I prefer to say, ‘asking for help’.
I was living in temporary accommodation in Newbury Park. It was nice. But the DSS had stopped my benefits. They claimed they hadn’t received my medical notes to process my ESA claim. I remember how carefully and meticulously I filled in the dozens of pages of that application form and how I checked and rechecked three times that everything was in the prepaid envelope before I popped it in the post. I remember thinking, ‘How the hell does anyone manage to do this if they are mentally impaired or trying to do it in a foreign language.’ It took me a week to decipher those forms but I did it and I got everything in on time.
So it was something of a shock to me, on the day my benefits were due, to discover that there was sod all in my account. I walked to the job centre, a few miles away, because I couldn’t afford the bus. I knew the people in there well, the ones downstairs are nice. It’s not their fault the system is bent. They taught me an invaluable lesson. Never, ever, ever post anything in a prepaid envelope to the DWP. Things get ‘lost’. ‘Is it deliberate’ I asked? ‘Well it happens to everyone, so what do you think?’ one person replied. Good point, well made.
Anyway, I had to go and get another copy of my medical notes. Borrow £10 from a friend (walk to his house to get it) then walk to my financially struggling GP and pay her £10 so she could print off those few sheets of paper. Then walk back to the job centre, several miles away, and get them to scan my medical certificate and send it direct, so they couldn’t pretend not to have received it.
In the interim, I had no money. None. At all. For two weeks. Now I’m resourceful, but this was ridiculous. I was still smoking back then. It’s hard to give up smoking when your life is precarious. You’re stressed and afraid. Anyway, I used to go up to Newbury Park station and pig up dimps (dog ends) and smoke them. On a nice day you could get enough to last you all day. Some people threw away cigarettes where they had barely taken a puff. Imagine that. They must be millionaires!
But now, faced with the fact that I had literally nothing, I had to do something. Obviously my desire to smoke like a chimney was sky-high, because I was stressed to f*ck. My housemate Mick was an ex royal-marine, his wife a strong, strong, woman. They had been there and were being f*cked around by benefits too. None of us had any money. I knew what I had to do and I knew Mick and Michelle had done the same, so that comforted me as I set off to do it for the first time. If they could do it, so could I. ‘Never forget who you are and why you are doing this,’ Mick told me. ‘It’s not your fault.’ Michelle added: ‘It takes a strong man to beg.’ Still, I was petrified.
They had bought me a can of cider so I sat outside McDonalds and knocked it back and put on my Spotify shuffle, hoping for inspiration. As I pulled myself up to go do it, the song ‘Begging Me’, by Florrie, came on. There were about 250 songs on that playlist. I laughed out loud. God really does have a sense of humour and I know it when I experience it. I winked up at the stars and went and got it over with. My cardboard sign said, ‘please help’. If anyone asked if I was homeless, I explained that I wasn’t but that I had no money. I didn’t want to be taking money under false pretenses.
Down on the pavement you really get to experience the world as it is. You see the best and worst of human life. Now, I laugh at the horrible ones, but back then, it really was shocking. Some people hated me for having nothing and were not afraid to tell me to my face. Fortunately I also experienced the kindness of strangers, the most wonderful kindness of all. People who gave, and didn’t ask questions. They had maybe been there themselves, or maybe just understood that I would hardly have been sitting there for fun. I remember the kind brown eyes of the mixed race guy who gave me my first quid and I quietly sobbed. It was truly humbling. Seeing me crying, I was then hastily given a few more quid by other lovely people. Result! The young ‘uns are the best. That really gives you hope for the future. I’ve always given my money away, when I’ve had it. Perhaps recklessly. I know my family think so. But I prefer to believe that it stood me in good stead when I needed help from strangers. Months earlier, I had been that stranger handing out help. What goes around comes around.
When the council threw me out back on the streets a few weeks later, I was back up at the station. Not ‘begging’ now. But singing. I have a decent voice. More of a mournful lilt, these days. I sing ‘Don’t Give up’ by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, and ‘Money, Money, Money’ by Abba, which always makes people laugh. By singing, I’m not technically committing the crime of vagrancy, so the police can’t throw me in a cell, as much as I’m sure many of them would like to.
I also make people laugh a bit, just say funny, silly things. This one Saturday afternoon, when I was REALLY screwed, I was singing ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA when this lovely Asian guy came past. ‘Mate, I’d give to you, but I only have my credit card,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry my friend,’ I told him. ‘Anyway, you wouldn’t want to see where I swipe it.’ He laughed out loud and disappeared to get his train.
Then this bony white woman appeared, literally a hurricane of bad energy, talking cod Posh. She stood above me as I sat on my sleeping bag. ‘Get a f*cking job’ she screamed at me.
I leapt to my feet. ‘I’m f*cking singing. I’m not hurting anyone. Who asked you? Mind your own business.’
Then she poked her finger real close to my nose staring deep into my eyes. ‘Get a f*cking job, you’re a disgrace!’ she reiterated.’
I’d had enough. ‘If you don’t remove your nasty finger from my face I swear I will break it off, love.’ I told her.
She, wisely, left. Would I have done? I hope not, but maybe. You can only take so much being bullied and pushed around. As she left she she roared. ‘Fack Orrrrf!’. And I finally laughed and scratched my head. ‘Classy bird, aintcha?’ I shouted back.
It felt good, to stand up for myself. But I won’t pretend I wasn’t disturbed and hurt by the experience. I also thought of all the other homeless people, less able to defend themselves than I, who she will undoubtedly have done this to. One day, she WILL surely lose a finger.
Anyway, I took a deep breath and sat back on my sleeping bag, not really feeling in the mood to sing. Within minutes the nice Asian guy came trotting back down the stairs. ‘Mate, you really made me laugh there,’ he said, handing me a ten pound note.
As he left, I serenaded him with Karma Chameleon. I hope he’s having a great time tonight, wherever he is.