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Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.

I was one of the outreach workers tasked with visiting the South Bank, attempting to do the best we could to mitigate the plight of the people congregating around the concert halls, theatres and galleries. In the malodorous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, rough sleepers made the best of it by building semi-permanent structures called ‘bashes’ out of bits of wood, metal, cardboard and blankets. I retain strong memories of the extraordinary individuals who existed there, many of whom slept rough for years.  None more so than of two particular characters, John Beglin and James Hamilton, whose divergent destinies inescapably came to encapsulate my own personal failure and success as a street outreach worker.      

James and John slept side by side against the back wall of the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, two men in a long line of bodies. As outreach workers, we worked the line as a pair, checking on people, passing out cigarettes, taking details of people who wanted to book into a hostel, arranging appointments for the next day, sometimes calling an ambulance where we found someone in need of medical attention. 

James worked during the day. It was not uncommon for rough sleepers to have jobs. On one occasion, we undertook a brief piece of research to ascertain how many rough sleepers were working and discovered that at least 20% were in some form of employment. Mostly the jobs were kitchen porter jobs, ‘KPs’, (essentially washing up on an industrial scale) of the kind that had changed little from the time when George Orwell was experiencing homelessness, recorded in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’.  Typically, this meant queuing up at the kitchen entrance at the rear of a London restaurant or hotel early in the morning.  The work was monotonous beyond belief, the ‘cash-in-hand’ pay minimal and the regularity of employment entirely unpredictable.

Unusually, James had a road sweeper job with a local council, though he would never confirm which one.  This meant he often got to his sleeping out spot which was nothing more than a sturdy piece of cardboard and bundle of scanty blankets late in the evening. John’s day was generally more orthodox. He too got the occasionally bits of KP work but usually spent much of his day in parks or in the day centre at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church at Trafalgar Square from which he was banned sporadically following altercations with the staff.  At the weekend, he gravitated to the American International Church in Tottenham Court Road which provided free meals.

John had turned taciturnity into an art-form.  Early in our relationship he was delighted to discover that we were called the Central London Outreach Team (CLOT) and deeply relished the moment of our arrival when he was able, with feigned weariness, to announce, ‘Oh Christ, here we go, a couple of clots have arrived’.  Confusingly, on occasions when other rough sleepers joined in his denouncement of us he immediately snapped back in our defence, describing us as the only ‘crew’ who came out night after night whatever the weather. He also resisted all of our encouragement and cajoling to move off of the street into accommodation.

Week after week we visited the South Bank, sometimes demoralised as numbers of rough sleepers increased, occasionally elated as we were able to help people away from rough sleeping and into a hostel and even, in time, their own flat.  With disturbing regularity, we would hear of the death of a rough sleeper and feel a mix of frustration, helplessness and sorrow. 

Rough sleeping is brutally attritional and we would witness the inexorable toll it took on the mental and physical well-being of people we were meeting night after night, many of whom had drink and drug dependency issues that contributed significantly to their problems.  Because James was arriving late at the rough sleeping site, it took us longer than it might otherwise have done to realise that he had developed a hacking cough which became so intense on occasions that in the middle of a conversation he would stop and become bent double until the coughing fit relented. Night after night we implored him to visit a doctor at the Great Chapel Street Medical Centre in the West End which accepted homeless people who were not registered with a GP. James stubbornly refused to seek any medical attention but he did ask to meet up to complete the forms for a ‘hard-to-let’ council bedsit. It was a breakthrough and we were delighted.

Looking back, it feels as if the bedsit took many months to materialise, though in fact it was probably less than three months. Eventually a letter giving a date to view arrived at our offices and I accompanied James to see a small bedsit on a north London council estate.  He seemed very satisfied with it and noted that he wouldn’t have far to travel to work. We were able to buy him some second-hand furniture including a small cooker and he duly moved into the flat.  By this stage the winter had arrived with a vengeance.  It seemed to me that in the preceding weeks James had aged considerably. He was in his mid-fifties but had the lined face of a much older man, consistently grey with fatigue. And, of an evening at the South Bank, that troubling hacking cough would announce his arrival before he materialised out of the evening gloom. 

We agreed a date for me to visit him in his flat but before this time arrived I received a call from an official at the coroner’s office who passed on the devastating news that James had been found dead in front of his gas fire by the estate manager following an attempted break-in at his flat. The cause of death was later identified as pneumonia. 

It turned out that James had four children, three daughters and a son, all of whom came to London for the funeral, his son flying in from the United States. I met him on the day before the funeral at my office and a desperately disturbing exchange ensued that I will never forget.  His son asked me how I knew his father and I explained that James slept rough, a term that clearly meant nothing to his son. I explained what rough sleeping involved, at which point his son paled and slumped back in his seat, staring at me in disbelief.  ‘But I’m a rich man, he explained, with a house in London that my father could have moved into at any time’.  He added beseechingly: ‘Please, can we agree to keep this from my sisters?’ I willingly assented to this deception.          

For a long while I felt consumed by guilt as a result of James’ death and replayed time after time our many conversations. I dwelt at length on the different occasions when I might have called an ambulance and bitterly admonished myself for buying into the seductive notion of rough sleeping being a ‘lifestyle choice’.  And I thought often of the conversation with his son and what I interpreted as the sceptical look that followed my explanation of James’ rough sleeping life, a look that said…and if this had been your father would it have taken so long to have got him away from this hell on the street?        

Meanwhile John remained impervious to my increasingly insistent offers of help. The winter nights became more bitter and I obsessively watched him for signs that his health was deteriorating.  Then one night, as I once more offered him a place in a hostel his patience snapped. Incandescent with rage, thrusting his face into mine he bawled, ‘No! No! No! Will you not take no for a fucking answer?’ It was a standoff I will never forget because I felt angry too. I told him that I was going to keep on coming back.      

Given the ferocity of the interaction, I was surprised that the next meaningful conversation with John was a brisk, muttered request that we talk privately away from the congregation of rough sleepers at the South Bank. We headed over to the all-night tea stall close to Waterloo station where John, to my astonishment, told me that he was ready to come in. ‘But don’t ask me why’, he added. And I never did.

Shortly after this he moved into a room in a small Thames Reach hostel in Marylebone. Occasionally I asked after John and was bemused to hear from the hostel manager that he was an exemplary resident, even one occasion helping to calm down another resident who was threatening to smash up the kitchen. 18 months after moving into the hostel, John accepted the tenancy of a bedsit in west London. I visited his meticulously maintained home on three or four occasions. I could see that he had settled well and would never return to sleeping rough.    

I hadn't seen John for many months when, out of the blue, I received a call from a woman called Helen who had heard that I might be able to help her trace her brother, John Beglin. It quickly became clear that she really was John’s sister and I believed her motives for a reunion with her brother were genuine and laudable. I rang John with the good news but was quickly cut short by his icy and unequivocal response. He did not wish to see his sister Helen, or indeed any members of his family, ever again.  I rang Helen back with this upsetting information and explained that our confidentiality policy meant that I was unable to pass on any of John’s contact details to her. She was distraught and I was unyielding as she implored me to at least indicate which area of London he lived in.     

It must have been over a year later that I picked up the phone in my office to be asked by the caller if I had done a shred of work since we had last spoken or whether I was still just sitting around on my backside at meetings. I felt a wave of affection wash over me on hearing John’s inimitable tones and readily agreed to his surprising request that I visit him in his flat on a specific evening the following week.

That particular day turned out to be long and fraught and it was late by the time I got to his flat and was buzzed in via the intercom.  Once inside I quickly realised that he had another visitor, a woman in her forties with the same Suffolk accent as John; it was Helen, his sister.  As he returned to his armchair John was uncharacteristically chuckling and shaking his head in mock disbelief. ‘This is the one’ he said, unnecessarily pointing in my direction. ‘He just wouldn’t take no for an answer’.  

John for reasons he, naturally, had no intention of explaining had eventually decided to ring Helen on the number I had left him. Over the next couple of hours Helen regaled me with stories of the various reunions that had taken place in the preceding months as John met with nephews, nieces, cousins, uncles and aunts; people who he had not seen for years or, in some cases, had not been born when John broke the links with his family. Helen explained that he had spent Christmas with her and that it had been wonderful. John listened with smug satisfaction, drily interjecting when he thought his sister was sounding too preposterously upbeat.  On the bus home I was beset by a complicated mix of emotions; happiness for John and Helen, some pride in having played a part in John’s successful journey away from the street and, most keenly of all, a feeling of redemption.

I still occasionally accompany workers from Thames Reach as they undertake outreach work with rough sleepers.  It is a different job these days with fewer rough sleepers congregating in one space as they did at the South Bank. I think the outreach workers are more skilled and professional now, compared with when I undertook the work. I observe them with respect and admiration as they tenaciously engage with men and women sleeping rough in appalling conditions who, inexplicable though it may seem, are often reluctant to move from the street and into accommodation. These outreach workers are simply not prepared to give up on people. They just won’t take no for an answer.       


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