How I was made to feel less human, a ghost on the streets
About 18 months ago Andy West slept rough in Belfast for a series of special reports for BBC NI. In a heartwrenching and poignant account, he recalls why the experience proved so soul-destroying... and an extraordinary act of kindness.
I want to tell you about one man. One homeless man whose kindness I'll never forget. But he'll come later.
In my limited experience, the greatest threat to homeless people in Belfast is the misery of it. Not the lack of food, nor even necessarily the lack of beds. But the horrible loneliness, lack of purpose and absence of hope. I was only 'sleeping rough' as part of a special report for the BBC for a few days and nights but within hours of leaving my warm flat I felt lower than ever before. The empty feeling as I wandered aimlessly from one cold, wet hideaway to another, quickly had me stooping, grey-faced, searching for some kind of purpose that didn't exist. There was no point to anything, other than finding food and somewhere to kip that would feel relatively safe and protected from the rain. And then you wake, teeth chattering, bones damp and frozen, to another day sitting against walls and scuttling around streets like a ghost, like a rat.
It is a life that forces you to accept that you are somehow less human. And, in that realisation, it's difficult not to yearn for small comforts. A drink to warm your throat, a cigarette to pass a few precious seconds. Perhaps, after weeks of depression, something more powerful?
The poor man who passed away on Wednesday apparently had a bed to sleep in and it's thought he may have died from underlying health issues. That could mean so many things, so let's not speculate. What we struggle to understand is that some homeless people avoid hostels because they prefer their independence or because they fear for their possessions and their safety.
The circumstances of this latest cruel death really don't matter. No man in his 40s in the UK should die alone and frozen in a shop doorway.
And so, to the man who did one thing that changed the way I see homeless people forever. He took me under his wing on the second night as we stood outside a hostel, hoping for a bed. He told me the safest, warmest spots to sleep rough: an abandoned warehouse, though you had to be on your toes because the owner would sometimes set his dogs inside and then perhaps an underpass, if you could stand the stench of urine. Feeling exhausted and stressed, I dropped a sweet wrapper on the pavement and the old man scolded me. "That's our pavement," he said, picking up the wrapper and taking it to the bin. "That's our home." He wasn't joking.
The old man didn't get one of the beds because he'd been put up the two previous nights. So I walked a little way with him through the Cathedral Quarter. It hadn't been a bad day, he said. People had been generous and he'd managed to beg around £24 in change. He'd get himself a whisky warmer. He was ancient-looking with a tattered coat, greasy white beard and yellow eyes. His back was bent and his fingers were pink and chapped. I thought of my grandad and asked him how old he was. "Forty-five," he said, laughing.
In the early hours of the following morning, I was sitting in front of the McDonald's on Donegall Place, clenching my teeth to stop my jaw chattering. I'd just had some French fries thrown at my face by some helpful passers-by. Then I see my old friend walking towards me from Castle Street.
He hobbles on one bad leg and shivers. His voice is slurred now and those yellow eyes struggle to focus. He rummages in one huge pocket and hands something over to me. I hold out my hand and feel the weight of coins. "Here boy," he said. 'You're too young to be doing this.' It was every single penny he'd collected that day. Every single penny. I tried not to take it. "Wise up," he slurred and stumbled off. I never knew his name.
I hope he's okay. I desperately hope he wasn't the man discovered on Wednesday night. He was kind and thoughtful. A friend. But then, no matter who this man was who died on Wednesday, let us remember that he was a person with a childhood, friends, family. Once... he had a future. In this cold winter, let's think of those who are at risk of losing theirs.