"They're having a great time at our expense, aren't they?" The man in the pet shop gestures towards a gang of homeless people on the bench opposite. The bench outside the multistorey car park is an all day party venue for drunken vagrants and there are usually half a dozen of them with their cans of cheap Polish beer and strong cider.
Do you mean the tax payers' expense? I ask.
"Yeah, they seem to be having a lovely old time. They're probably not even homeless."
Well, I think they're all alcoholics, so I don't really envy them, I say. They probably are homeless, though perhaps not sleeping rough.
"Is it something you're interested in?" he asks.
Yes, I know what it's like to have nowhere to go, so I can empathise. The man looks surprised and says he will think about it. Perhaps he's formed his opinion from what he reads in the tabloids, it's easier to do that than actually speak to someone who has nowhere to live. I've come across this quite often - people don't seem to believe that homeless people are actually homeless. Then there's the problem of definition - does homeless only mean sleeping rough? Is someone 'sofa surfing' homeless? Someone who sleeps in their car? Or someone who is in a shelter, a hostel or a B&B?
Andrew feels judged by people in this way, though I can confirm that he currently has no home. When we sit outside the cafe together he thinks that passers-by are wondering how he has the means to buy a burger- that he's defrauding them in some way. I'm sure most people realise that I'm the one paying for his meal. Having said that, Andrew did offer to buy me a cup of tea today, with his Cafe Nero points card. I think he would buy me a burger if he had the funds.
I re-read Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London the other day and he rather generously considered begging to be work - an entirely unproductive form of employment, but a job nonetheless. I should be careful what I say, as I think begging is actually illegal in this country. Andrew often gets moved on by the police, but I think this is only when supermarkets decide it's putting off customers. The old fashioned tramps that you no longer see, were itinerant by necessity; they were forced to move from place to place to find food and shelter due to a law which prevented them from staying in the same location more than once a month. The law is less punitive nowadays, but it could still swing back the other way, as public opinion is easily manipulated against the most unfortunate in society.
When I saw Andrew at lunchtime, he was talking to a man with a shaved head outside the charity shop. I thought they must be friends at first, as the man had crouched down to Andrew's level and was balancing on the window ledge of the fashion boutique. I was pleased to discover that the man worked at the homeless hostel. I handed Andrew a bag of t-shirts and the man said, "you're doing well today." It turns out another woman had given him some clothes belonging to an old man who'd just died (hopefully not while wearing them) and he already had a bulging carrier bag next to him.
The man said his name and I introduced myself as Andrew's friend. He seemed to think that the delay at the hostel was perfectly normal - people move out, people move in - there's loads of paperwork and it all takes ages. The machinery of bureaucracy turns slowly I said to Andrew and he gave me a baffled look. "I think I should ring them - make a nuisance of myself." No, I don't think pissing them off before you've even moved in is such a good idea. "Alright, I'll ring them tomorrow."
He was in a very chatty mood, but I have a slipped disc, so didn't really want to join him on the floor. Nevertheless, he managed to draw me into a conversation about confectionary. Andrew loves his sweets: fruitella, wine gums, but not fruit pastilles. He broke his tooth on a wine gum, so they must be in a right old state. He still plans to have "false teeth in a glass", but won't let anyone see him without them in, he says, sucking his cheeks in, so he looks like he's toothless. He tells me that his dad gave his friend with false teeth a frozen Mars bar, so his dentures stuck together, which sounds cruel, but is exactly the sort of thing we used to do to my nan when I was little girl. I'm always glad when Andrew tells me something about his dad, as I think it's a sign that his grief is subsiding.
"It's getting really cold in the mornings," he tells me. "I'll be needing gloves soon." I have some for you, I say. My boss gave me some skiing socks, gloves, a jacket and a balaclava for you. "Balaclava! I'll be able to wear that when I do a bank job!" It's entirely the wrong sort, I tell him. You'll just look like you're ready for the piste. I'll bring the jacket for you to try on later in the week. I'm now the procurer of Andrew's winter wardrobe - not a role I've asked for, but someone's got to do it.