I've never liked the homeless - they're smelly and scary

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Mon Jan 4 19:50:05 GMT 2010

I've never liked the homeless - they're smelly 
and scary. So would a Christmas shift at a shelter change my mind?

I've never liked the homeless - they're smelly 
and scary. So would a Christmas shift at a shelter change my mind?

Last updated at 1:55 PM on 28th December 2009
to My Stories

Admittedly I don't really like people all that 
much. I've always much preferred animals. They 
love you back, unconditionally. They never betray 
you. Which is why I find myself driving - on 
Christmas Eve, no less - to volunteer in a 
homeless shelter with an extremely heavy heart.

I do have sympathy for those who live on the 
street in India, say, or Bangladesh. I remember 
once being greeted by an almost Biblical scene at 
the railway station in Delhi, piles of women and 
children sleeping on the platform, mere piles of rags.

'God, the trains must be really late,' I said to 
my companion. 'No, families actually live here. All the time,' he replied.
 Liz Jones

Food for thought: Liz Jones (centre) helps 
prepare the vast amounts of food that the shelter make

I have helped the homeless in India in the past 
on working holidays. They are sweet. They are 
grateful. They live in a country with no safety net.

But homeless people in the West? Surely these 
people are mostly drug addicts, drunks and 
prostitutes. They like doing what they do, they won't want my help.

But, having braved the icy lanes around my farm 
in Somerset, I find myself outside the Caring At 
Christmas shelter in St Paul's, a deprived part 
of Bristol, the scene of violent race riots in 
1980; it seems no one has bothered to clean up since.

I lock my BMW carefully and ring the doorbell. 
I'm nervous. Whenever I've been in the proximity 
of a homeless person before, I have rushed past. 
They scare me. They always seem to shout out something embarrassing.


to a new you! Our top life coaches reveal how to 
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STREET-PORTER: 2009 - A year that drove me crazy!

I hate dirt and smells. I have no patience with 
people who can't help themselves, who remain 
ignorant despite a free education, libraries, the internet...

A cheerful man with a beard shows me round. His 
name is Kit, and he's one of the trustees of the 
shelter which will stay open, 24 hours a day, until the New Year.

By day, he is a cameraman. By night, he 
supervises the 400 volunteers who will turn up 
this week to ensure that up to 150 homeless 
people a night get a festive meal, entertainment, 
showers, medical care and a warm bed.

Kit leads me along a narrow corridor lined with 
boxes of food and carrier bags. When I arrived, a 
smart couple were dropping off half a dozen tins of luxury biscuits.

In the corridor are boxes and boxes of organic 
fruit, veg and meat from Riverford, a small 
Somerset company. There are crates of yogurt and 
milk from Yeo Valley Organic, and millions of 
orange Sainsbury's carrier bags everywhere. 'They 
just called and said: "Come and get whatever you want," ' Kit says.
Liz jones

Any room at the inn? Liz Jones in the main hall 
where some of the homeless will sleep over Christmas

I meet Rhianan, who is 27 and one of only two 
full-time, paid members of staff. I ask if she 
wouldn't much rather be at home with her family.

She says: 'I'm a single mum with a six-year-old 
daughter, but she's with my mum at the moment. 
She understands what I do for a living.' That 
must make her much less selfish than other kids 
at this time of year? 'Oh no, she still wants an Xbox.'

I'm taken through the dorm, with its rows and 
rows of simple beds, each with a neatly folded 
blanket and clean sheet; it is as if it is 
waiting for the victims of some natural disaster, like a tsunami.

'It is a disaster,' says Claire, the only other 
staff member, who is 31. 'Before I started to 
work here I thought homeless people should get a 
job, but now I've changed my perception. They are just unlucky and unloved.'

She tells me the reason she does the job is for 
people like 20-year-old Sam, one of the regulars.

'He's a real Artful Dodger. He steals, but he's 
so bright, so funny. His mother gave him drugs 
when he was five years old. Given the right 
chances, he could have been so successful.'

She then tells me about a young woman of 17 called Jess, who has just come in.

'She was sexually abused by her father, ran away 
from home and has just been beaten up by her 
boyfriend. She is very scared, very vulnerable.'
Liz Jones

Liz Jones talks to one of the homeless guests that visit the shelter

Too vulnerable to stay at the shelter, it turns 
out - anyone under 18 is not sent to a hostel, 
but installed in a temporary, previously vetted 
family under a scheme called Nightstop - and so 
Claire is about to take her off to a country house hotel.

'Really?' I say. It turns out the owner of the 
very posh local hotel has phoned and offered the 
keys to eight rooms, free of charge. My faith in 
human nature is gradually being restored.

I sit in a big room to be briefed along with all 
the other volunteers - there are so many young 
men and women who should by rights be out binge-drinking - for the night shift.

A description of a missing teenager is read out: 
she has long blonde hair, is probably on heroin, 
has learning difficulties, and her parents are going insane with worry.

More from Liz Jones...

JONES FASHION THERAPY: How to have a snuggly (and ethical) new year 03/01/10
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shoes and wobbly bottoms: LIZ JONES looks back at 
another mad decade on Planet Fashion 30/12/09
JONES MOANS: Forget cheap plonk and false cheer, 
give me the men in kilts 30/12/09
JONES: Plus-size models are all the rage, but is 
fashion really ready to embrace them? 27/12/09
JONES: There I stood, homeless with my Prada case 26/12/09
JONES: The award for worst dressed celebrity of the year goes to... 23/12/09
JONES: Wish me a lonely Christmas and spare a 
thought for the millions of women like me 20/12/09

One of the supervisors, Rose, says: 'Remember 
that if you do laundry for the guests [those who 
come here are never called homeless, or victims, 
but always guests], shake the clothes first in 
case of needles [the loos have blue lights, to 
make locating a vein in order to inject very difficult].

If you are on the door, remember to collect any 
bottles of alcohol, label them, and lock them in 
the cupboard. If you are nervous about talking to 
anyone, try offering them a cup of tea or a sandwich. And remember, enjoy!'

We all stand, and I feel like I've just been 
briefed for the Battle of Britain. 'Don't be 
scared,' Kit tells me. 'We don't usually have any 
trouble. The guests police themselves - they don't want to be ejected.'

I go into the kitchen to help first. I keep 
looking to see where my handbag is. A menu is 
chalked on a board. Salmon steaks with cheese 
sauce, a vegetarian option of pasta bake. There's 
broccoli, roast potatoes, jam sponge, Christmas cake, mince pies. Blimey.

Steve, the chef, hands me an apron and a pair of 
gloves. A trained chef, he now works in human 
resources, but he will be here all week 
supervising. He assigns me to stir the stuffing.

I'm standing between Sarah, who by day works in a 
bank - 'I'm not very popular at the moment!' she 
trills - and Wendy, who is retired.

Don't they have families at home to look after?

'I could do with not being here this evening, I 
have so much to do!' laughs Wendy. 'My family do 
worry, but I always promised myself I would give something back.'

I ask whether she had any preconceptions about 
homeless people before she started working here. 
'I used to, but they are just like you and me.'

I stand at the door to the lounge, which by 5pm 
is filling up fast with people of all shapes and 
sizes. A young woman comes to get a cup of 
coffee. She is distraught, and drunk.

It turns out she has just been to see her 
children, who have been taken away from her, and 
didn't even have the money to take them a card. 
'I failed them,' is all she can say.

A fairly respectable man comes up to get a cup of 
tea. He says he has not been homeless for long. 
(Wendy tells me later that it is so sad to see 
how people disintegrate on the street. 'At first, 
they are smart and clean, and then as time goes 
on they become more and more dishevelled.')

The man tells me he lost his job, started 
drinking and having rows with his wife. She 
turfed him out, and now he has lost everything: 
his home, his children. 'What have I thrown away?' he keeps saying.

Everyone is excited that this evening, a 
beautiful, 24-year-old acoustic singer called 
Sophie will be performing Beatles songs as well 
as her own compositions for the guests. (I tease 
her that most singers her age would focus all 
their energy on winning The X Factor, and she 
gives me a hard stare). We also have a 
hairdresser in the house. It could almost be 
Daniel Galvin in Mayfair, so thick and fast come the requests for a booking.

The hairdresser's name is Amberley, and she is 
19. This is her first time doing the hair of the 
homeless, and she's a bit nervous. Why is she 
here? 'I felt Christmas had become really 
shallow,' she says. 'I thought: "I'm lucky - there must be a way to help."'

I meet Val, a nurse from St John's Ambulance. She 
tells me that the most common ailment of the night is bound to be trench foot.

'Homeless people don't tend to take off their 
shoes and socks,' she explains tactfully.
Liz Jones

Liz Jones outside the Caring at Christmas homless shelter in St Pauls Bristol

There are notices everywhere about TB and how to 
keep warm. I meet a man called Alan, who is 49, 
but, what with his lameness, his lack of teeth 
and his weather-beaten face, he might just as well have told me he was 80.

I feel as though I've been tipped back into 
Victorian England. 'How can this still be 
happening?' I ask Kit. He replies: 'We are all 
just five steps away from being on the street. It 
can happen through a relationship breaking up, 
abuse, mental illness or just through sheer bad luck.'

And then I meet David. He is tall, dressed in the 
usual student uniform of jeans and hoodie, with 
long dark hair and startling blue eyes. We sit on 
a bed together. I ask him where he lives. He 
starts to describe a square in Bristol. Well, 
that sounds quite nice, I tell him. Is it a flat 
or a bedsit? 'No, in the square,' he says, as if 
I have learning difficulties, 'on a park bench.'

You live on a park bench? 'Yes.' In this weather? 
'The cold isn't so bad. It's the rain that gets you down.'

David never knew his real parents. He was adopted 
by a couple 'who never should have been allowed 
to have a child', and ran away from home aged 16.

He is 40 and has lived on the street ever since. 
Can't he get a job? 'I have tried, but they don't 
take into account you might be soaked to the skin, or exhausted.'

Do you get depressed? 'Of course I do. But I try to keep a lid on it.'

Can't the Government get you a bedsit? 'I don't 
want a bedsit,' he says. 'I want what you have.'

I meet a man called Alan, who is 49, but, what 
with his lameness, his lack of teeth and his 
weather-beaten face, he might just as well have told me he was 80

I almost say, crossly, that, well, you'd have to 
work hard to get that, but, of course, I'm not 
taking into account the fact he was abused, he 
never had a family. That living in the cold every 
day makes you cantankerous, dislikeable, tougher than I will ever be.

He tells me he went to Cornwall in the summer. 
Hmm, I think, a holiday. I don't get holidays. 'I 
went because it's a few degrees warmer. I walked 
there. Only took a few weeks.'

David is fiercely independent and wary of rules, 
probably because, given his status, he is always 
bossed about, moved on, told what to do. I ask if 
he has any friends. 'No, not with other homeless 
people, mainly because I don't drink, or take anything.'

He says he is going to stay for dinner, but that 
he won't sleep in the dorm, preferring the 
independence, the peace and quiet, of his bench. 
I say it must be hard, unable to have a 
girlfriend or children. 'I will never have that,' 
he says. 'Who would want this?' He points at his rotting teeth.

Does he worry about the future? 'I don't have a 
future. What I dream about is having a piece of 
land, looking after it, learning some old-fashioned skills.'

I ask what is the hardest thing about being 
homeless. 'People are very rude to me. That, and the rain.'

He picks up his tiny rucksack. I ask if he has a 
mobile number, and he looks at me as if I've 
asked where he parked his Porsche. My eyes 
automatically swivel to check the location of my 
Michael Kors tote. He sees me do this, and I feel ashamed.

At the end of the night, I walk back to my car, 
to my warm, cosy life, and decide I'm going to go 
back to that square to find David, and I'm going to try to help him.

• CARING at Christmas is at Little Bishop Street, 
St Paul's, Bristol. Visit www.caringatchristmas.org.uk

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