Walking to the station one afternoon, I passed the office block where, on the pavement, sheltering under an overhang, a man had been living in a tent for several weeks. Now, however, he was striking camp. The street-team had thrown his tent on to a refuse lorry and were scrubbing the pitch clean. Meanwhile, he was being led away by a police woman and several social workers (as I assumed them to be). Further on, I passed other street-dwellers, all in their usual places and untroubled by eviction – perhaps because they inhabit sleeping bags and are therefore not in contravention of town-planning byelaws applicable to tents. Dealing with homeless people is, I am sure, complex – as are the circumstances of their plight.
I was on my way to York to attend a friend’s* book launch and, while there, take in some of the tourist attractions. It was my first time in York, yet I was not surprised to find the same degree of vagrancy on the short walk from station to centre as there exists in other cities. One law of economics is universal: if you are begging, then you must site yourself in the midst of the maximum number of potential donors, especially nowadays, in the light of at least three developments. The first is that fewer people carry cash in their pockets; the second is that people are experiencing compassion fatigue; the third is that donors are increasingly persuaded by the argument that giving money to individuals merely buys their next drug fix, whereas funding registered charities is more likely to help in their rehabilitation. This latter I subscribe to, though I am convinced that vagrancy can only be eradicated by re-balancing our socio-political system. I am working on that.
The day after the launch party, I took a walk along the city wall to get a feel for the antiquity of York. I also visited some ancient buildings, among them the small church of All Saints, where the medieval stained glass windows are not only remarkable but also very accessible, being at shoulder-height. One of them, (pictured) from 1410, depicts a man in ‘eyewear’ that might be fashionable in hipster circles today. But it was the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall that really interested me because of its continuity (it is still owned and used by the society that founded it in 1357) and the fact that part of its original function was to provide respite for the destitute at a time when government was not concerned with such issues. There is much more to see in York, of course, but I ran out of time.
Back at Manchester Piccadilly, I encountered a scruffy-looking man dragging a reluctant creature on a leash. “Is that a ferret?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied but, as he was about to warm to conversation, I caught a whiff of a pungent odour which deterred me from getting closer. In fact, it put me in mind of medieval hygiene. I left him and his pet – which was struggling to propel itself along the slippery tiles. Although the smell of ferrets can be very unpleasant, there are ways of minimising it. This man evidently had made no effort to do so. In fact, he had even acquired it himself. Outside the station, the street-dwelling vagrants awaited and, swathed as they are in grubby blankets and sleeping bags, they added to my impression that I had slipped into a medieval time warp. Overall, I am sure that the human condition has improved with the progress of civilisation, though by Samuel Johnson’s measure – “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation” – that progress has surely stalled in recent years.