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Sock Mob #2

March 8, 2016

As I get off the train at Charring Cross station, I see two other members of the Sock Mob offering some items to homeless people sitting on the station floor, on the way to the meet-up point. I join them, and am immediately set upon by a dozen guys who seem to come from myriad hidden corners of the station. Evidently, when someone is offering tea, news travels fast.

From my sample observation, I determine that the mode average amount of desired sugar in a homeless man’s cup of tea is three teaspoons. I’m bent double in the middle of the station, making cups of tea for friends and friends of friends, privately thinking that by the time I get to the meet-up point, I’ll have none left for the actual rounds. As one of my companions observes: “I’m glad I don’t have to carry around a heavy thermos, but I didn’t think it would go down so quickly.”

Mercifully, the group waits for us. Just as well, as all three of us latecomers are self-confessed useless-with-directions. I’m sure if I led a group I’d somehow lead everyone around in a circle. Terry, one of the permanent fixtures of the Sock Mob, leads our group around our portion of the Strand. His popular addition to the provisions is instant noodles, which he prepares crouching on the ground, furiously poking boiling water into the cracks between dried noodles with a plastic spoon, hungry eyes on the back of his neck.

Three blokes struggle with noodles sliding off the spoon as we chat to them. Germane has come down from Nottingham, because he feels that God haw led him here to London. He says he is willing to live on the streets if that is what is required of him by God.

We talk about the possibility of being housed, and he mentions a session with Connexions, a help and advice service for teenagers, and under-25s with learning difficulties.

“They keep trying to send me back home,” he says. “And if you don’t take the place they offer you, you don’t get anything.”

I ask him if he explained to them his reasons for wanting to stay in London, and whether or not Connexions had been sympathetic. He says that he did, partially; he concedes that his reasons for staying are more complicated than he originally indicated.

Germane is a tidy man. His sleeping bag is made up like the bed of a fastidious pre-teen, before the interest in such things dies out. He has laid it neatly out on top of several layers of carefully arranged newspaper, and organised his personal effects tightly around him.

“Someone tried to take something from me when I was in there the other day,” Germane says, indicating to his sleeping bag. “But I was awake. I think God’s watching over me. Someone gave me a £20 note the other day. I get the feeling something even better is going to happen soon.”

He thinks for a moment.

“Maybe he’ll let me know how I’ve ended up here,” he adds.

Germane goes on to describe several lucky incidents, including unexpected boxes of pizza being handed to him by strangers. He is happy to get hold of some vegetable soup, saying that it’s not always easy to “get your five a day”.

My companion Linda is offering another man homemade butternut squash soup, trying as she does so to explain what a butternut squash is. This guy has been in and out of jail for long periods of time; he’s also from up North, and has both parents and children up there. He’s determined to use his new freedom to its best effect.

“I want to go travelling. I’ll go to Amsterdam, I think. But first I have to get back up North to see my mam and dad, because they’re getting on, you know.”

Terry is offering out sleeping bags to people who look as though theirs are on their last legs, or those who don’t have one at all. He’s just received a donation of two grand, plus an extra £500 from another source. He’ll purchase sleeping bags of a higher quality with it; flimsy camping-in-the-garden bags are no good for people living on the street all the time.

“They’re sitting on them all day, so the bags need a lot of padding. And people like to put their belongings right down into the foot of the sleeping bag, to stop things getting stolen.”

He adds that spoiling and damage to sleeping bags are a big problem; a few homeless people have been urinated on by passers-by, and one man he knows was set on fire.

Another perhaps less obvious hazard is the many dogs. Much as they are wonderful hot water bottles for their owners, they’re also compulsive chewers. One man’s Staffy, called Spot for the large and perfectly round black dot in the middle of the top of his head, has trouble picking up his dog treat and accidentally shreds some stuffing out of the man’s duvet trying to get at it.

Spot is one of three dogs we meet that night, including a huge and extremely docile Rottweiler, and a mixed breed whose owner teases her by pretending to start a game of catch with a dog treat. She bounds back and forth happily across Piccadilly Circus, falling for the trick every single time. Members of the Mob often have dogs at home and will bring healthy dog treats – there is rarely a time you won’t come across a homeless dog while walking through any part of London. Terry discusses compiling a book of the homeless dogs of London, to be sold for funds to help the homeless.

We come across a woman who can’t speak English, but speaks Spanish animatedly to one of our number. She says she is having trouble finding work as a cleaner since arriving, though the circumstances are unclear. A cheerful man appears from across the street to get some tea, and leads us back to his friends so we can serve them, too; narrowly avoiding a bus and a taxi in quick succession as he blithely sweeps across the road without looking. The bus roars a frenzied honk, but our jolly friend turns nary a hair. I give him a pair of socks and he gives me a high five.

Our next customer looks a lot like Keith Miller from EastEnders. He is alone, and when we offer him supplies he says that what he really wants is some company. There is much scrambling to crouch and sit around him. Terry in particular persistently offers Keith food; he repeatedly declines, saying he keeps bringing it back up. He hasn’t eaten for some time and is instead drinking a litre of vodka a day. His stomach can’t handle anything.

“I know I have to eat, I know,” says Keith. “I know it’s stupid not to.” But evidently he cannot face any food just now, all the same.

We offer him toiletries but he still refuses. “I don’t need any material possessions,” he says, gesticulating emphatically. “People are what I need. The world’s nothing without people, is it? People, they’re the worst thing and the best thing.”

Keith asks us what the best word in the dictionary is. I offer: “cantankerous” off the top of my head, but Keith has his own ideas. His favourite word is “word”, as without the concept of words, there are no words. He fishes a pocket dictionary out of his blanket to illustrate the point better by reading aloud the definition of “word”.

He talks to us about his addiction. It turns out he was addicted to much harder substances in the past and successfully quit them, and he recently drank four litres of vodka a day but has managed to reduce it.

After several minutes listening to Keith’s world view and ambitions (he also wants to visit Amsterdam, among other cities), he says: “Now I have to be rude, I’m afraid…” and we take the hint and leave him in peace. Terry promises to come back tomorrow for a while. His offer of a fresh sleeping bag receives no firm response in either direction.

As we walk away, my companion Linda and I discuss how Keith is the perfect example of why she and I are both uncomfortable giving hard cash to the homeless. You can never really tell who’s an addict; of everyone I’ve met, Keith is easily the most lucid and articulate. Practically a philosopher, I think to myself. Even when someone has every intention of quitting the substances, there is no guarantee that addicts will maintain the inner strength to keep to that goal, and money they fully intend to spend on a hostel might end up spent on drink.

Our last customer for the night wanted a sandwich, but we didn’t have any. After he shuffled away disappointed, we all had a joint lament among ourselves how difficult it is to account for everything. Linda looks sadly at a pair of men’s shoes left in her bag. They were either too big or too small for every homeless man we met.

“They tell you they need something, and you think: ‘That’s a good idea’, then when you bring that, they need something else instead,” Linda sighs. It was the last time we went out that we discovered a man who wanted shoes. It’s not certain we’ll see him again, or what his shoe status will be if we do.

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