Sometimes when the cold grips the town it grips Matt Wingett‘s heart too and, during the recent snowy weather, he felt the need to get outside. Encountering Donald, a man struggling with residential housing and dementia, leads Matt to reflect on attitudes to homelessness in the city.
In winter’s late flowering, I headed out in a flurry of flakes and trod over the iced streets down to the sea, where the water was green against the white downs of the distant Isle of Wight and the grey sky above.
Cold. Ice cold. On South Parade Pier, a guy was shovelling a path through half-melted snow that had refrozen into a sheet of ice, while the sea rolled and scattered beneath him. At the pier’s far end, I took it all in, the sea, the sky, the ice in the clouds, the unforgiving breath of winter – and felt immune to it all in my sheepskin jacket. Warm. Toastie. Against all that out there.
Then I went through that little enclosed space, the Rose Garden. Thorned twigs were coming to life in this early spring, their jagged edges dark against the snow. I felt the need to sit somewhere, quiet, and allow the depression that’s got me at the moment to just sit with me. Depression, she’s an unwanted visitor, but I find that I can’t just rail at her. Every time I do, she settles in more comfortably. When depression begins to warm her cold hands on my heart, then I find it better not to complain too much, but to drop the pace of my life and accept her latest visit. Don’t overdo it, don’t give yourself too much to do, but don’t do nothing. Sit with her. Bear her.
So I made my way to the shelter that sits on the seaward side of the Rose Gardens, elevated and looking down from what used to be a gun emplacement in Lumps Fort, a long time ago. Thus, I mounted the ramp with a mind to sit and enjoy the snowbound geometry of the rosebeds.
At the top of the ramp there is an alcove in a wall, where once perhaps soldiers stored artillery rounds. A pile of cloth was stuffed in there I noted. Then, getting closer, I saw a rucksack, and realised it was a sleeping bag next to it.
The sleeping bag was not moving. Perhaps it had been dumped? But no, I could see a shape of a body. Suddenly afraid, I straightened and stood stock still, alert for any movement. There was none. I stepped closer and listened and could hear no breathing either and the fear grew stronger. Depression does this. It makes one less willing to face life, leaving one’s emotions all raw and ready to be stung and poked without any filters.
After a while, I walked away, not sure what to do. I took a breath. The image of the sleeping bag would not leave me and I went back. Perhaps I could get a hot drink. Chocolate or something. With a growing sense of dread, I continued to watch. No movement at all. Nothing to indicate a life in that snowbound scene. And so I walked over and said, ‘Are you okay? Just checking in with you. Let me know.’
I watched and waited. And then, the sleeping bag moved and rolled over, away from me, and I could see it had its back to me, and whoever it was wanted to sleep more. I thought, alive and was relieved.
‘Do you want anything?’
But the bag just rolled itself up more, trying to get away from my voice.
I stood there a while and felt useless, and turned away, making my way round the snowbound edges of Canoe Lake. I felt pathetic for my ineffectuality.
On the far side of the lake was a man in a thin summer coat over a cheap jumper. I saw him talk to another morning walker, who looked embarrassed and walked on. When I got closer, I saw he had a half-drunk bottle of wine on the bench next to him.
As I went by, I was struck by his watchful calm.
He spoke to me. ‘There’s a big snowball there, if you want to throw it,’ and he pointed at a ball of dirty grey snow about 75 centimetres wide, the remnants of a snowman that some kids had built and others had kicked in with gleeful indifference.
‘Shall I throw it at you?’ I said.
He laughed, and we fell into conversation.
‘I’m freezing,’ he said.
I looked at him more closely. He didn’t look like a tramp. His clothes had a washed-out grey to them, and his trousers were dirty, but his skin was freshly washed and his hair clean. There was a look about him that said he was well fed, but his lips were grey and starting to go blue.
‘Well, what are you doing, sitting out here?’ I asked.
‘I’m in a residential home,’ he said with desperate passion. ‘But I can’t stand it. It’s an awful place, I don’t want to be there with those goons. They’re all in their 80s and I shouldn’t be there. I’m only 64.’ He added the last with a pathetic plea in his voice.
‘Can’t you move out?’
‘My brother put me in there. My own brother – put me in a home and I can’t get out. And he’s got all my money. He’s got loads of money – a great big place in Hayling Island and just gave his kids £200,000 each to buy a house, and he puts me in a home I don’t want to be in.’
I looked at him for a moment. It was a strange story that didn’t quite make sense and I felt that I shouldn’t get tangled up with him. But then… he looked so desperate.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Matt,’ I said, and offered him my hand. He shook it and his was like a block of ice. I was shocked at how cold he was. He, actually, really was freezing, as he’d said. ‘You know, wine isn’t going to warm you up.’
‘No. But I like the taste of it, you see. And I need to do something. And it’s only £4.30 from the Co-op, which is a cheap wine. It’s rubbish. But it’s a bargain. Do you go to any pubs?’
I told him I did and so we passed the time. At one point he said, ‘How long can you go without food?’
‘Days? Weeks? The landlord who runs the home, he fasts for a month,’ he said, seemingly baffled. ‘His name is Abdullah.’
‘Ah, well, you see, they can eat at night, just not in the daytime.’
‘What’s the point?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t make sense. He says he’s 12 stone, but he’s half the size of me. With a shiny head.’ He looked at me. ‘I say he’s like a little black ant.’
The words he was speaking told me little and much at the same time. Snippets of a life, like a jumbled book of postcards.
‘You can’t stay out here,’ I said. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘I’m not going back there,’ he replied, adamantly.
‘Couldn’t you go and sit in the library? At least it’s warm.’
But then he dismissed the idea out of hand.
He was getting colder by the minute. I could see it.
‘Look, do you want to get a cup of tea? I’ll get you one,’ I said, and pointed over to the Canoe Lake cafe.
‘That’s very kind.’
I reached in my pocket and realised I didn’t have any cash on me.
‘Wait. I’ll be back.’
When I got back from the cash point, he stood up and walked with me on unsteady feet.
He sat down to drink his tea and was shaking so much from the cold he could hardly hold the cup. I need to warm him up, I thought, and so I carried on chatting with him. Depression, I suppose. It helps me to help other people. Distracts me from myself.
As we talked, we began to loop around the same subjects. He reintroduced himself to me, and asked my name again, then told me he was in a home and couldn’t stand it. He would mention other housemates, and then, after a brief digression, go back to them again. ‘We argue,’ he said. ‘I can’t stand them.’
At another table were some Down’s Syndrome people, talking loudly – out on a walk to see the snow. One of them was squawking and grunting, and Donald became agitated.
‘Who are these people?’ he asked me, clenching his jaw. ‘Who are they?’
He had his back to the group and seemed so angry that he couldn’t look round at them.
‘They’ve got Down’s Syndrome,’ I said. ‘They can’t help it.’
He looked at me and forced a smile. ‘Nor can I,’ he said.
As he talked more, I began to see the pattern of his conversation, I realised that he was probably in a home because he had early onset Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t hold thoughts for long, and drew on older memories. Everything recent was blurry. At one point he told me that he’d had his wallet stolen, then that he was due an inheritance, then that his brother was keeping the money from him, looping and looping around.
I went to the counter and asked the women if they’d seen him before. One of them had.
‘He’s in a home,’ she said. ‘A really awful place. I’ve heard it from someone else, too. The other guy, his window is smashed and hasn’t even been fixed. He was in here, crying.’
I sat with Donald a while longer, and then, when I saw that he’d warmed up, left him with a pot of tea and headed out.
I realised he needed better care than he was getting. That he needed medical attention and his case dealt with properly – and if that were done, he could go to a place where he would at least be a little more happy. One thing was clear. The way things were now had led him to hypothermia in the snow.
A few days earlier, I had been in Waitrose, and overheard an old woman complaining about the homeless begging outside.
‘It’s just so awful having them here. Why can’t they move them on? Or get rid of them?’
“I know,” said the shop assistant. “They come in here, and it’s really off-putting.”
‘And they’re conmen,’ she said. ‘They’ve got places to go, they just can’t be bothered to work. They sit out there all day, and they could be working. Why aren’t they working? How do I know they’re homeless? They’re not homeless. They’re just begging because they’re lazy.’
She said it with authority. She had obviously read it somewhere.
It was then I realised the lack of imagination of so many of us, who can’t see the other stories of people’s lives that don’t fit our world view, and how easily people can fall through the cracks in society’s imagination. And at that moment of a lack of imagination, we fall back on defensive positions that feed on the worst of us. Her incomprehension that in modern Britain, people could be homeless made me wonder how far removed her world view is from mine.
Yet, how easy it is to be vulnerable. How easily Donald had nearly made himself seriously ill by just slipping outside for a few hours to sit on his own. How easy it is, in our precarious world to slip. How, by making tiny mistakes, we can end up freezing on a park bench in the snow, or sleeping in an alcove, with no-one around to care.
Read more of Matt’s observations about Portsmouth on his website here.