Mad dogs and sun hats
A few weeks ago whilst on a work trip to London I found myself short of time in an area unfamiliar to me. I’d planned to catch a bus but anxious not to be late for my meeting I decided to take a taxi. It was a warm, bright, sunny morning and the driver and I chatted for a while about the weather; as you do. The car radio was on and we stopped talking to listen to an interview with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Amongst other things Zephaniah spoke of his desire to move to the countryside, one of the reasons being that: ‘people smile and nod at you in the country before going on to engage in in-depth analysis of the weather’. Mirroring, as this did, our earlier conversation, the taxi driver and I laughed together and moved on to speak of other things.
Not surprisingly, given the heatwave we are currently experiencing there is lots of weather chatter and analysis going on at the moment. After grumbling about the heat and how difficult it is to sleep, work, think, and so on, one or other of the conversationalists will generally say something along the lines of: ‘we shouldn’t moan should we?’ On the way into work a couple of days ago I stopped to give some change to a homeless man. After thanking me he said: ‘It’s a little cooler today isn’t it?’ I was struck by the fact, as I often am in such encounters, that someone living in such dire circumstances should be so keen to engage in the everyday pleasantries that are an often thoughtless, throwaway, part of moving through daily life for the rest of us.
I have previously written about winter homelessness (see for example https://www.abctales.com/story/gletherby/snow-days) but at such times as these the problems for people living and sleeping outdoors are no less significant; merely different. Whilst others of us are looking forward to returning to our air-conditioned or fan-chilled offices and homes and dreaming of ice-cold drinks and showers those who live on the streets must inevitably find it so much more difficult to keep cool. Unlike the hat wearing sun for whom we all shout ‘hip, hip, hip, hooray’ many homeless people don’t have access to weather appropriate clothing (or sun cream) and even finding a safe and shady place to sit may prove challenging. Similarly, this group of people have little choice about whether or not to join the ‘mad dogs… out in the midday sun’.
Last week we heard that the: ‘Number of homeless pensioners in England’ reached a 10-year high:
A total of 2,520 over-60s were recorded as being homeless by their local council in the past year, compared with 1,170 in 2009-10. Some will be in temporary accommodation, but others will be sofa surfing and sleeping on the streets. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/homeless-pensioners-elderly-single-parent-household-housing-shelter-figures-a8419241.html
Noting that older people and single parent families bear the brunt of any housing shortage shockingly, shamefully, the same article notes that there are now also 123,000 children without a home. (Again homelessness here includes temporary accommodation of various sorts.) Recently too (although I don’t know the most up-to-date figures here) there has been an increased in social media sharing of photographs of people asleep in parks or on streets next to their wheelchairs.
Reading the detail on older people’s homelessness I remembered my mother-in-law’s death. Living well into her 91st year she suffered with a bad chest and heavy cold every winter for the last four or five years of her life. I always thought that one of these periods of cold weather illness would be her last. In fact it was during a hot summer that she died. Having collapsed in the heat she spend some time in hospital and then in respite care before returning home only to fall once more. A few days later she died in hospital. Writing this sat up in bed, unable to doze off during another long hot night, propped up by cool, comfy pillows and covered in a clean, cotton sheet, I can only imagine what it would have been like for her, or my mother who died at 80 to have been without a home as elderly women. At nearly 60 I don’t know that I would have the resources to cope if I became homeless, particularly if I was forced to live, and to sleep, outdoors. Indeed, neither can I see how my friends in their 50s, 40s, 30s, or those even younger, would manage. The reality is that many homeless people do not. The average age of death for people who live and sleep outdoors* is 47 years and the expected lifespan of those who become homeless when older than this is surely reduced.
After we had exchanged thoughts on the weather I asked the man I met on my way to work on Wednesday morning about the battered novel that was open in his lap. Animatedly he told me how much he was enjoying it, as he had all the author’s previous books. This aspect of our conversation gives me further cause for reflection. I know that the writers and readers who frequent this site glory in the beauty of words, the power of a good yarn, romance, saga, fantasy, tragedy and more, and more, and more. I certainly do and I feel confident in saying that so too does the man who sat reading his novel in the street. (After thinking of him all day I retraced by steps at the end of the day planning to give him some more money for his next book. But he had moved/been moved (?) on). When reading, listening and watching stories we escape into other worlds, engage with our own and others’ emotional as well as material experiences, and we learn, always we learn. To not have access to such simple pleasures. To not have new knowledge immediately at hand via paper or screen or technological device. To be without stories. To be bored, in addition to being scared, lonely, hungry and either much too cold or far too hot. That there are so many, that there is even one person, in this situation is, I truly believe, a national shame.
* I have deliberately not used the term ‘rough sleeper/sleeping’ in this piece (although I have previously). I recently heard a representative from a local charity - with the aim of ending ‘street sleeping’ in the county where I live - say that 'rough sleeper' is a term disliked by those sleeping outdoors because of the value-laden implications.