The images in this piece are illustrative and do not represent any of the individuals mentioned:
A cold night in Norwich city centre. The streetlights - dimmed as so many others across the county seem to be to keep the costs down - throw only anaemic orange pools.
On many streets, the shadow beats the light and the people in the doorways are hard to separate from rubbish and the discarded sleeping bags of people who are now gone — escaped or dead or both depending on your particular point of view.
I’ve just finished work and I wander around popping in and out of shops, dissuading myself from buying yet another book. Someone with a warm berth to go back to, enjoying the cold as something bracing.
On the way up to Jarrolds — one of the two department store pillars of my childhood along with Bonds, now rebranded for consistency as John Lewis (those fucking heart string tuggers) — a man with a ragged red beard and a forest fire of blazing red hair stops me. His hands are filthy, the tar and street filth tan of a man who hasn’t had a wash for a few days at least.
I assume he’s in his forties, perhaps his fifties. He has the bright, insistent eyes of someone feeling a little manic, a little mad in the painful moment. And he asks me the inevitable: “Can you spare some change?” The next bit is a variation and the best people at this — the ones who survive — are masters of the novel variation. “It’s my birthday, you see and...”
The story runs in fast, clumsy sentences. It’s about madness and sadness and drinking and drugs, he was born in Norwich but his parents don’t want him or maybe they’re gone. My notepad isn’t in my hands. He wouldn’t talk like this if he was, I know that. I’ve done these chats before.
I don’t know if it is his birthday and it’s not usually a good move to pay interviewees but I get some money from the cash machine and give him a note and then another smaller one when he asks for more. Cheeky fuck, my brain kicks back but then it gets itself in line — fuck that, I get MYSELF back in line. Because the guy is doing what he needs to do, he’s trying to survive. And wouldn’t you try to chivvy a little more from someone who seems willing to listen to your grief-filled tales and hand over the money you need.
The usual attack on bleeding hearts like me is that we’re handing money to people who will just pop the notes into the hands of a waiting dealer. And maybe they will. Maybe they will. But better my money given willingly than money gained from someone who wants to use them for sex or ripped from the hands of an incautious pedestrian.
I leave him to his birthday and his aim of getting a B&B, one that has apparently let him in before. He shambles into the distance and I wonder what’s beneath the beard and the hard surface of homelessness. As he leaves me, I ask him what birthday he’s celebrating: “30,” he says.
The temperature is dropping fast and the shoppers are thinning out. I’m hungry and unlike the people I’m speaking with tonight, I have the option of grabbing some food. I head to McDonalds, which sits beside a small square where homeless people tend to gather after dark, so long as the police don’t turn up to enforce the now pervasive city centre banning orders.
Refuelled, I walked back out into the darkness to see an urgent order of Uber Eats riders gathered on one side of the square. On the other, a group of drinkers nursed their bottles, sitting in the dead skeleton of an old ice cream stall. They were loud and belligerent, a tight fist of frustration, turned into one monster in the eyes of the passerby, the individuals swallowed by the shadow.
I walked out of the centre and down towards Prince of Wales road where the nightclubs squat, burp and fart chaos into the streets. It was a Thursday night and the revellers were tottering that way too. A few doors down from the Norwich branch of Brewdog, I stopped to talk with a young woman who has staked a spot close to a bank of cash points. She’s usually with her boyfriend, but he was elsewhere trying to rustle up some money to spend on a b&b and, she told me quite candidly, some food and drink.
With her boy gone, her companion was her dog, a little scrap of a thing who was just 6 months old. “Is he cold?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said, “He’s really warm. He keeps me warm.”
The dog looked out from under the blanket and nuzzled my hand a little. I gave the woman a couple of quid from wallet and the dog instantly started barking as if he knew the transaction was done. She thanked me and I told her I hope she got something hot to eat when her boyfriend came back.
I followed the pockets of pissed up revellers down onto Prince of Wales road. Just down from the Prince of Wales pub, I stopped to speak to a man in his mid-fifties who told me he had been homeless for 6 months after a falling out with his girlfriend whose name was on the lease. “I moved here for her,” he said, “I moved here for her.”
We talked for a bit and I said I’d pop into Tesco and buy him a pasty. I’d been planning on heading there anyway and it felt like the tiniest gesture. When I returned with a bag containing a pasty, a sausage roll and some chocolate cake (as well as a £10 note for his time), two younger men had joined him in the nook.
Remembering that he’d mentioned being attacked and having to defend himself the previous evening and that he’d run away from more aggressive individuals later that night, the sudden change in circumstances made me feel deeply uneasy.
“What have you got him?” asked the younger of the two other men, his demeanour jangling with a familiar junkie intensity.
“Just a pasty and some bits,” I said. “I’m sure he’ll share some.”
“I won’t,” snapped the older man, turning the situation even frostier.
“Okay,” I said. “Here...” I gave the other two men a five pound note each and entreated them to “be cool.”
As I walked away, I thought I could hear them laughing. I may have imagined it but I was sure I’d come over as some entirely clueless bastard.
I’m not the only one. So many people walk around Norwich with their eyes closed or averted from the misery in their midst. With the city centre banning orders, the problem has been pushed to the Prince of Wales area. The problem is profound.
Just as I left work today, before I changed location to write this article, I saw two homeless men screaming at each other in the street. The source of the problem? Fighting over the carcass of a phone box — somewhere relatively warm to sleep if you wrap your blankets tight.
NEXT TIME: What the council has to say and I talk to the charities and voluntary organisations trying to change things for the better.