“I spent nineteen days living in a public garden.” – Luke*
“I walked all over Malta, the bus is too expensive.” – Mark*
“We eat from bins and steal food. I spent days hungry “ – Luke
“I washed a bit in public toilets.” – Mark
This is the life of the homeless. I never wrote about this subject. I always thought that the best way to write was to experience so, coming from a stable and relatively affluent background, homelessness was not within my ken. These stories shocked me to the core and they need to be written.
Over the past few days, I met two homeless men, two completely different men in attitude and circumstance who had been dealt a rum card by life. Many are dealt blows in life, and many struggles through. Some struggle and soldier on in spite of unimaginable odds. Like Mark and Luke.
Luke came looking for help. In all the years I have worked in this complex, this had never ever happened before. The proverbial knock on the door one late Friday evening, yielded a gaunt, tall man, mid-forties by the look of it, though looks might deceive. In need of a good wash and some decent clothes. In a shy, self-effacing way, almost as if he would rather be anywhere, doing anything else, he asked for help. A brave act or the act of one with his back to the wall, I thought. Ever the practical being, I took him in hand.
One bath and some decent clean clothes later, Luke’s story began to unfold. He had held a decent job. Nothing major but enough to get by. Just enough, as the rent was over two-thirds of his meagre salary. Illness struck, and he had to quit his job. His landlord pounced, putting up his rent to €800 a month. In the blink of an eye, he was out on the streets with a backpack.
As if reading my mind, Luke smiled. He begged for his living and he tried to find jobs. The work part became increasingly difficult as his personal hygiene deteriorated. He was chased off buses, he said because of his smell and because he travelled with his constant companions, clouds of flies. Food was a rarity. In a climate of general concern over obesity, Luke lost 95 kilos. He was understandably wry on the subject. Many are helpful and charitable but just as many are cruel and hard. One shop owner phoned the police and, he said, six policemen came over the theft of a ġbejna. A ġbejna which was all the day’s food and which had to be returned. And the shop owner immediately threw it away because it was ‘soiled’, even though it was packaged. In another case, he was sitting on a garden bench and some youths nearby were eating chips and burgers. They started pelting him with food and jeering. It was all he could do to move away. He had not eaten all day and was tempted to pick up the chips.
Without a fixed abode presents a further problem. Applying for social services is impossible, so a vicious cycle begins where one cannot live without benefits, but the benefits can never be obtained since there is no address. I asked if the family could help. Luke shrugged. ‘The woman who gave birth to me’ as he describes his mother has a new partner and cannot be bothered. A tiny pinprick of light on the horizon is a man who will let him use his address for the princely sum of €24 each month. Which was where he was heading. He had gotten a job as a dishwasher meanwhile an was hoping to turn things around.
I came across Mark some days later through a mutual acquaintance in the voluntary sector. Mark was a reformed druggie and sleeping rough was not new to him. Neither were brushes with the law. Now that he is clean, however, he is finding that cleaning his reputation may be as much of an uphill job as cleaning his habit had been. He seems determined to succeed.
Mark spoke of sleeping rough. Although accepting to be interviewed in heavily camouflage, I could tell that what he was saying was heavily sanitised. In spite of that, the harshness slipped through. Getting soaking wet. Being bodily attacked while sleeping and ending in fisticuffs. Not being allowed to sit on a doorstep to eat. Food was an issue for Mark too. While not as gaunt as Luke, Mark openly admitted to stealing. He would buy a soft drink and steal a yoghurt. At least he would be getting something in him he said. For that, it was not the first time he had been picked up by the police and sent down for the night. Recalling these things, Mark’s indignation wells up again says that a cup of coffee and a quiet request to move would be enough as most homeless persons are inoffensive.
Begging and the ostracism of their families came hardest to both Mark and Luke. Both spoke of the way this life strips a person of every vestige of human dignity. The past, in the case of Mark, reaches out to try to dig its claws back into him. He has tried to hold down several jobs but once employers find that he had once been a user, they sack him. He had been approached by drug lords, even offered drugs for free to get him back in the drug circuit. So far, he has held out. Pointedly, however, he remarks that as a pusher he could make €1000 daily ‘easy’. And I could see the fear and doubt in his eyes as if to say ‘I want to hold out but how long can I do so’.
It was a sobering experience, which brought to mind T.S Elliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ :
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
So the next time you look at your home and decide to throw out some furnishings or some food, just give this article a read and think again.
*Luke and Mark are pseudonyms to protect identities.