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A night with the Sock Mob

February 17, 2016

I joined the “Sock Mob” for a walk around London this evening, offering socks, food and toiletries to the homeless. I’ve done this once before, and both times, socks themselves were in tragically short supply. But we probably can’t just call ourselves “the mob”.

Our first customer was new on the block. Fresh out of a hostel, he will be back there tomorrow. Tonight though, he’s on the streets, seemingly without any bedding. He’s all right for now – enough to be concerned that his sandwich be vegetarian, if possible. What he really wants is better shoes. His are uncomfortable on the arches of his feet; there’s something wrong with them, a defect he was born with.

As he accepts some fresh vegetable soup, a couple of his peers come up behind us. They’re looking for tea, coffee, or anything hot (but preferably tea or coffee). The elderly woman and older man both have rotten teeth and can eat only soft or liquid food. I ask our guide, Gerry*, about their teeth.

She tells me that the homeless drink a lot of cola – they can always do with the sugar, and cola is an abundant source of it; McDonald’s and Burger King meals are cheap and come with sodas as part of meal deals. The problem is, homeless people can’t get access to toothpaste or toothbrushes very often. Gerry said that on her last round, one man told her that it would be helpful to have some mouthwash handy.

I passed some soap to a young man called Daniel, who said he’d use it if he could; he usually gets blocked out of facilities, even in dire need. He recounted for us (apologising as he did so) an incident recently where he went to a café and told them he desperately needed to defecate, but they turned him away. Other store owners are more kind; on the step where he has set up camp, the staff know him by name, and for a time offered 20% discounts to anyone who mentioned him. He has been on their step for a month.

Daniel’s camp is a one-man tent labelled “beer fest”. Inside it, sundry toiletries roll about, lose among his bedding. Daniel has no bag of any kind, as his suitcase was stolen.

“I have literally nothing,” he says. “And when I say nothing, I mean literally nothing.”

We equip him with some wet wipes, which he can use for basic hygiene if he can’t get into any facilities.

One of Daniel’s acquaintances arrives, and immediately accepts a cup of soup and a fistful of savoury pastries with relieved gratitude. He also needs a blanket; he left his sleeping bag somewhere and returned to find it missing. The two begin to talk among themselves, matter-of-factly sharing tales of woe. Daniel says that he was assaulted by a passer-by the other day while just sitting around. It is a common occurrence.

He is asked what he needs most, next time the Sock Mob come around. He says: “A haircut.” His hair is getting steadily more unmanageable, and his beard is now too long to be tamed by the safety razors in our supply bags.

The next man we meet is a cheerful, Santa Claus of a man with a bushy beard, a patchwork sleeping bag over his knees and what looks like a pink baby’s blanket around his shoulders, greying from street grime. He’s met Gerry before and chats happily with her. She inquires after his usual female companion. He replies that she is missing, and he is worried but hoping for the best. When friends go missing, sometimes they show up later, having scored chance nights in hostels, or else moved on to a different patch for a while.

A male friend is lying on a big pile of bags, in the nook next to an entrance to Piccadilly Circus underground station. He gazes up at us from his bed with hollow cheeks and slurred speech, not immediately sure what we’re after. Santa Claus pitches in.

“We’re really all right, for now,” he says. “There are people out there who need it a lot more than us.”

Indeed, he is already laden with bottled water, most likely from one of the church groups in the area. People usually assume the Sock Mob is attached to a church, suggesting that the churches are the principal source of homeless aid and outreach.

Around the next corner, 30-something-year-old Trevor is sat on a narrow strip of pavement, accompanied by two small dogs, a mother and a son. The son chews playfully at my sleeve as I pat him, his tiny teeth sharp and white, his coat glossy. I remark on how healthy Trevor’s dogs look.

“My dogs come first, always first,” Trevor explains, opening up his rucksack to reveal, not human provisions, but a gigantic bag of dog biscuits. “Me second, or I go without.”

We leave him playing with his puppy, and soon discover Janet. She is withdrawn, her face buried into her knees as if she is crying. Fresh out of soup, one of our number purchases hot chocolate from nearby instead. She stops to offer a hot drink to a homeless man directly opposite us on the other side of the street; he says he is Janet’s boyfriend.

We make chitchat with Janet while we wait. She is from Dublin, and we ask if she will ever return.

“Probably not,” she whispers. “There’s nothing for me there, now. No family.”

It is this barely prompted openness that is so strikingly consistent among the homeless. Even the man we met who couldn’t speak any English talked to us at length in Spanish, as he accepted (rather confusedly) a large number of supplies.

We also confused a man who was napping in an alcove. He stared blearily up at us and asked for a cigarette, which we did not have; this we told him, with that apologetic ambivalence one feels when one wants to give someone something they ask for, but simultaneously wishes that they did not want it. He did, however, fall upon the apple juice we offered him with great enthusiasm.

“Better for my belly than beer, isn’t it?” he said.

His can of lager lay abandoned inside his sleeping bag.

As we left, he rolled over and went back to sleep; and I thought, how strange it must feel, to be suddenly borne down upon in the middle of your nap by several earnest strangers, who want nothing more than to feed you cupcakes and pot noodles.

The Sock Mob have a Meetup page here and organise fortnightly trips starting from Victoria, Waterloo and Charring Cross train stations. The website “Socks and Chocs” accepts mail donations of socks, snacks and other small items.

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