It was a chilly autumnal day. Earlier that morning I’d been reading a local news story that had virally spread across the country; a recent graduate, aged in his early twenties was struggling for work, so this local farmer in his home town offered to give him a job, a guaranteed two hundred and fifty quid a week, which is a perfectly reasonable salary. The catch? His job title was human scarecrow. Yep, this guy would spend eight hours in a field watching and waiting, and then waving wildly when a flock of birds landed nearby. It was no doubt a boring job, but this affable guy had made the best of it. Practicing an assortment of eccentric musical instruments such as the ukulele, reading novels and completing Sudoku puzzles, the man was pictured by a local photographer wearing a fluorescent orange windproof jacket, the kind a postman would wear in the winter time.
The fluorescent jacket hit home with me, as it reminded me of a moment on that autumnal day which for some reason stayed with me. I was walking back from the post office, having sent a package to my sister who lives in a small town paradise on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. I was begrudging the five pound and ten pence charge for sending the package which struck me as extortionate; I reluctantly handed over a tenner to the old lady at the counter. The change I received rattled in my front pocket. As I walked down Rupert Street I was approached by a stout man wearing a black beanie hat and a yellow fluorescent jacket. I thought he was a council worker, or a labourer, someone who might be asking for directions, which wasn’t uncommon in the residential maze of streets that connected to the Unthank Road. I was taken aback when he asked me for some money to buy food. I stopped dead in my tracks, hoping to stop the rattle and clash of the change in my pocket. A shady guy approaching me in a quiet residential street, nobody else about, there was no chance I was giving this guy money. Besides he looked a little too well fed to be begging. I fixed him a stare, said “Sorry mate, I haven’t got any money” and walked on. A strange sense of guilt jilted through me initially, but I walked on. A few paces on, I turned around and the man had disappeared.
This year I can think of numerous occasions when a lost soul has approached me and asked directly for money, citing food as the reason for making such a bold request. I say bold, because it would take a lot to imagine how desperate one must become in order to ask for money from a complete stranger. I’m too proud; if things ever got that desperate I would rather steal then beg. Which sounds all the more ludicrous giving that a significant part of my job entails me stopping evidently hungry people from stealing food.
Even at work I can’t get away from the guilt. We’d detained a Lithuanian man several weeks back that resembled an emaciated looking Ethan Hawke; he had stolen several low value food items. It was a text book stop as the guy was under the influence of alcohol, and therefore he did not have his wits about him, or the eloquence to protest. When we brought him back to the holding area he begged for forgiveness and asked if would be able to eat some of the stolen food. He eyed the food like I might eye a particularly beautiful Japanese woman, with a longing desire that is unlikely to ever be satisfied. Ethan Hawke got lucky because we were unable to get hold of the police, who at the time were mostly occupied with monitoring the away fans at the nearby Norwich City football match. This meant Hawke got served a banning notice and let go without any criminal charges.
For some reason I couldn’t let Ethan Hawke go hungry. He genuinely looked like a man that had not eaten for three days. So, and this was extremely difficult given that the man had little grasp of the English language, I decided to take him to a local church which doubled up as a food distribution centre. I escorted the man to the church, and along the way he seemed to be praying to God above, giving thanks that we had been merciful. I got many stares from wandering shoppers who saw me and Ethan, this odd couple, me in my ridiculous Security uniform, and this tatty looking Eastern European guy getting on his hands and knees and praising the almighty in Lithuanian.
When we reached the church, the food distribution centre was not open on a Saturday; it was in fact only open on a Sunday. Shit, I thought, how on earth am I going to explain this to Ethan Hawke? I got out my notepad, drew something which resembled a church and scrawled an ‘X’ through the building. Trying to explain it was closed. My next point of call was the nearby YMCA building. I explained to Hawke where we were going next by doing the dance moves that accompany the camp Village People classic. Again, passers-by must’ve thought I was stark raving bonkers.
When we arrived at the YMCA, I wrongly entered through the cafeteria. I explained to the workers behind the counter about the plight of Ethan Hawke, but realised that I was likely not going to get a hand-out. I took him round the back to the main reception area and enquired about where Hawke could get a meal. I was told by a bald man on the desk that there’s nowhere available until later in the evening when the soup kitchen sets up a stall on the Haymarket. Then we were tapped on the shoulder by an enormous stroke of luck, and a great moment of generosity, as one of the cafeteria workers came into the reception area clutching a baguette wrapped in a brown paper bag. I managed to somehow score Ethan Hawke a meal and he was over the moon, tears formed in his eyes. I then escorted him back out of the building, and scribbled down on a piece of paper ‘Haymarket, soup kitchen’. He wandered off, munching into his baguette.
I’ve since seen Ethan Hawke in the city; he was slouched out on a park bench, pissed as a fart. Still, struggling, and with little near future prospects. It seems problematic that these Eastern European males, a surprising proportion of whom being Lithuanian, find themselves turning to petty crime in order to survive, arriving in England, like many other immigrants have done, in search of opportunity. If one is to be cynical, and sound like your average Daily Mail reader then an alternative argument might suggest that these guys are looking to score from the benefit system and have no intention of working for an honest wage. Whichever way you see it, I still have a certain admiration for any man who wishes to trek halfway across Europe in search of a better life, but at the same time I will concur that it is worrying that many people are coming to the UK and living life as petty criminals.
Where else could I have taken him? The Salvation Army on the other side of the city continues to provide a noble service for homeless and vulnerable people, offering a drop-in service, and their caring staffs provides suitable advice and assistance. The essentials are there for those who drop in from the cold, as it is possible to obtain food, a hot shower, clothing and a bed for the night. For those who want to give a little, it is possible to buy Food Vouchers that will be distributed to those who are in need.
The St Martins Housing trust is another charitable organization that provides food and accommodation to the homeless. Beginning in the seventies the trust has developed considerably, offering a number of services, including specialized locations for assisting with people who suffer from mental health issues and those who are dependent on drugs and alcohol.
If heaven forbid, in the future, shorn of my family and friends I became destitute I dread to imagine how I could summon the strength to survive one night sleeping rough, a day without food. Where would I turn? I mentioned earlier that such desperation might turn me to theft, but I don’t necessarily think I would do this, even when hungry. I think I would at least try and turn to a charitable organization.
It isn’t just the homeless that are struggling in these austere times. Parents are struggling to put meals on the table for their children, and thousands of folk have had to turn to Food Banks, there are currently ten distribution centres in the city. Food is expensive, and though one could live on smart price baked beans, you need certain sustenance to keep going. You don’t really know when the wheels on your wagon of domestic bliss will spin from the axle. A sudden illness might befall you, your partner might kick you out, the main breadwinner in the household might even die.
The Food Banks offer emergency food boxes that are acquired when the person in need hands over a voucher that they have been given by a relevant care agency, after this agency has assessed their needs. These food boxes should cover a families basic need for seventy two hours, before social services can step in and assist further. There is talk that there are tens of thousands of people in Norwich struggling, close to poverty, if that figure is multiplied on a national level then we are in a dire situation. If I’m to throw facts about for a few seconds then a couple of years ago The Department for Communities and Local Government stated that around thirty two percent of children in Norwich are affected by income deprivation. The sad truth is that parents aren’t earning enough to take care of their children, prices are rising on everything, and debt is spiralling. Those who work are no longer earning a liveable wage. As the Government continues to make welfare cuts, and people remain on the dole due to the lack of opportunities to earn a decent living wage it seems like Food Banks will continue to be a lifeline for many individuals and families.
In terms of the rough sleepers, those who sleep in doorways and plead for money, I see these people regularly on the hedonistic trail of bright lights that lead to inner city club land. As nightclub workers approach you on the street giving you flyers for free vodka shots, you walk past the homeless people. Some place themselves by cash machines, copping an eye full as scantily clad women totter by on killer heels to withdraw a wad of twenties. I’ve recognized some of the grubby faces as local junkies, the same faces I’ve stopped during the day for theft. Occasionally, I’ve thrown a pound coin into a beggars lap, this drunken generosity seems negligent now.