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Sock Mob #3

March 23, 2016

As I venture out onto my third outing with the sock mob, I come prepared. I have organised a number of sanitation bags, complete with mouthwash, socks, tissues, condoms, wet wipes, razors, for men, sanitary towels for women, a small tube of aqueous cream for sore skin, and a small tub of Vaseline for chapped lips. As I packed these bags, I realised they were on the bulky side; I should have kept things like mouthwash, which is usually happily accepted, separate to things which are awkward to hand over and likely to be declined, like condoms.

I think it was probably optimistic to think that anyone would use them; I don’t know how concerned people are with sexual health out on the street, but I like to think they have the option to be careful if they want it. What worries me is that the people who need to use them most simply won’t be able to – sex workers, who probably can’t dictate terms to their clients, and whose clients probably don’t see the point in paying for sex if you have to wear rubbers. Moreover, if they did care, they would probably supply them. Still, you’re allowed to hope, and you have to try.

I spent about a half hour completing the kits when the bulk order of small plastic containers finally came through from eBay. Bulk buying like that is very economical, and I can buy big tubs of things in Poundland and divvy out portions so as not to weigh people down with too much stuff. The aqueous cream went in disposable samples test tubes for labs – they were smaller than I envisioned, a hazard of online purchasing. Same for the make-up disposable sample pots I put the Vaseline in. I realised that no one would know what these curious vials would be, so printed a note in English, and Spanish, which two people I’ve met on the street spoke instead of English. It was Google translate Spanish, which I hope got the point across – putting the first draft of the message back through the translator gave me something like: “What the white thing, watery cream is.” I can’t even be sure that the word cream there doesn’t specifically refer to dairy products.

In general though, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and my efforts. I deposited the first bag next to a sleeping gent. He was surrounded by big fiction books, open and well-loved on the pavement around him. Then, as I approached the next set of people, I realised I had given the last fellow my one and only women’s grab-bag instead of one of the many men’s bags. I hope he can find a loving home for those sanitary towels. I expect on the street, stranger things happen next to you while you sleep.

Luckily, I didn’t meet any women that night, so I didn’t curse myself twice over for the ridiculous grab-bag error. But I did meet Santa again. His girlfriend, whom I mentioned in the first entry, has reappeared. He has been with her for years. Santa tells us she is out on the game, and will be back later. They share a tent, which he sleeps in at night and she during the day. He tells us his girlfriend has been homeless on the street for eight years – since she was fifteen. She ran away from home, having been abused by her stepfather from the age of eight.

“She never stood a chance in life,” said Santa. “These guys who pick her up, they don’t see what I see. They only see the outside.”

He becomes distinctly teary-eyed as he repeatedly expresses how much he loves her. He and I get talking about the economic situation, including the Right to Buy scheme, whereby Thatcher’s government sold off a large proportion of council housing stock to the occupants, in order to increase private ownership of accommodation. The scheme has left councils depleted of housing to offer people who apply for it; housing officers generally attempt to find homes in the private sector instead, and grant housing benefit to be paid to the landlord. This scheme is still going on.

“I’m lucky, I sit here and I’ve got everything I need,” says Santa, gesturing to the veritable avalanche of goods we have bestowed upon him. “There are some families with kids, they’ve got no place to go.” This is the second time Santa has expressed his perceived comparative good fortune.

Westminster City Council are not happy with the tent arrangement where Santa and two other men are set up by an underground station. It is taking up too much space, and Santa is on his final warning; they will take it away and move him on if it is still there when they return in three weeks. Santa is not worried; he claims that they won’t move him on. I ask him if he thinks that they will simply not be bothered, or if he intends to resist any attempt to move him; he replies cryptically that he will not be going anywhere.

Over where his companions are, the gaunt man we met a couple of weeks ago is lying motionless. His friend, Andy, says that he is ill – he has the flu for about the sixth time.

“Not a cold – the flu,” Andy emphasised.

Andy also has plenty to say about government schemes. The trio in this small area have recently become aware of the government funding package announced last December for tackling homelessness.

“Where’s that money gone, that’s what I’d like to know,” said Andy. “I’ve not seen any of it.”

He says that funding tends to go into running shelters, but that for a number of reasons, shelters are not ideal. They often do not have the right facilities, they have restrictions and are no long term arrangement.

“People don’t want hostels, they want houses,” he says. “But the money all goes into getting us off the street. They just want us out the way.”

Like most people who’ve been on the street for a while, his fingers are black around the nails and blue on the tips. For some reason, the corner he has picked is particularly cold; most likely, it catches the wind. He thanks us for chatting with him for so long. So caught up in our discussion, he quite forgets his soup, until we start to move on.

The next man we meet calls out to me as I walk by – not realising that we are specifically looking for homeless people, he sees me looking at him and asks if I have change to spare. He says he has just got out the army. I sidestep the request by immediately offering him all the things I am willing to give. Army guy is astonished at his good luck – he has no sleeping bag, and our party happens to be holding just one. He has almost no belongings, so we unload endless things onto him. I will need a trolley next time for all the jangling bottles of tap water and mouthwash. The empty bottles also came via eBay, from a home brewery company in the UK. Homeless people often want water, but I imagine they don’t need mountain spring water; I spend 3p a bottle rather than 80p, avoiding breaking the bank over a rather silly middle class obsession with water toxins.

A man stuck right out in the street with an gigantic army pack, which he tells us was a gift, accepts a cup of soup (potato and leek today). He declines any toiletries, as he is well stocked; one of my companions says that it is good of him to be honest, as most people would just take whatever they could get. But that does not tally with my experience. It is actually sometimes hard to get them to take what they obviously need; not everyone takes care of their teeth, their skin, or their hygiene; not everyone even eats as often as they could or should.

There aren’t many people out on the street tonight. A group of people is in the alcoves we visited last time we were here. I look for Germane, but he is gone; I hope all has gone well for him. Perhaps he got the big lucky break he was expecting. This seems to be the Eastern European quarter right now – many don’t understand what we want, at first. A group of police stand in a huddle nearby. Their presence makes us nervous, as we wonder if they are monitoring the homeless; one of our number dithers for a moment, asking if they would prohibit us from handing out our gifts. I reassure her that we are doing nothing wrong and they will likely not care. Sure enough, the police completely ignore us.

I offer tea around to the guys in the alcoves. I don’t quite catch someone’s response when I ask how many sugars he’d like. Perhaps he thinks I’m shocked at the number he specifies, because when he repeats his predictable answer of “three, please?” there is an apologetic tone to his voice.

“Don’t worry,” I say, pouring his tea for him. “You’re in good company there.”

I don’t think he quite understands what I mean; but then again, he hasn’t offered tea to half the homeless people on the Strand.

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