On Saturday night, whilst on a crowded bus at 1am in London, a homeless man got on at Waterloo station. He was wearing a hospital band on his wrist and had no fare. I was standing right at the front nearest the driver and a group of us, all strangers to each other, put our hands in our pockets and paid the £2.40 for him.
He sat next to another homeless passenger and there was an immediate respect between the two of them. They talked about warm sleeping spots they knew and places you could get a free cup of coffee.
The fare-less gentleman got off the bus in Peckham and disappeared into the dark. As other passengers got on the bus, the driver shut the doors and told us we wouldn’t be going anywhere, as the homeless man had bent his windscreen wiper.
He managed to soldier through the extra two inches of drizzle on the far side of his windscreen to drive us to the nearest bus station. Whilst doing this, he simultaneously shouted down his radio to a colleague (“He didn’t even have a fare! They shouldn’t even be allowed on the bus; all they do is stink up the place!) and lecturing us (“You’re all mugs, paying his fare for him! After he got off the bus, he went straight into the off licence!”).
If that man did bend the windscreen wiper, it was a pointless act and really frustrating for the driver and for us, however, it was an act that had nothing to do with his homeless status, just as it would have been irrelevant if he’d been Chinese, Jewish or an accountant.
All of us who had paid his meagre fare agreed that we were lucky to be going home to warm beds (some of us had leftover chicken korma waiting to go in the microwave…) and if a four-pack of Tennent’s out of the Co-op was his only comfort that night, then he was perfectly entitled to it.
What I couldn’t believe about this whole sorry journey home (including the driver kicking us all off followed by a half hour wait for a replacement bus) was the bus driver’s obvious disgust towards the homeless. This wasn’t just about a windscreen wiper. It was a personal vendetta.
Contrary to popular belief that the homeless bring their situation upon themselves through drink and drug problems, the most common reason for homelessness is the breakdown of a relationship. In the last two years alone, London has seen its homeless population increase by 62%. If you look at the way the poor and benefit claimants have been treated over the last few years, it’s not hard to put two and two together.
Many homeless people are not rough sleepers, but simply people who don’t have their own place of residence. In order to apply for housing, there is a lot of hoop-jumping and if you do not have dependent children or are not considered vulnerable enough, you will not be entitled to housing. And it’s pretty difficult to register yourself for jobseekers’ allowance and search for work if you have no address.
Everyone’s talked Benefits Street to death but now I add my voice. The public have every right to be angry at those who “sponge off the system” but what shows like that do is direct focus away from other issues, like corporation tax. and on to the most vulnerable people in our society. This anger has spilled over towards the homeless and combined with the fact that homeless people are such an everyday sight, it creates a feeling of something between apathy, disgust and fury.
It encourages someone like a bus driver, who would be considered a working class chap, to look down on others as the scourge of the earth, when he should feel empathy towards them rather than superiority. It further emphasises the class system, telling us to adjust our gaze lower, rather than up at our politicians and tax avoiding business owners.
It’s a problem I feel helpless in the face of, other than buying someone a hot meal when I can afford it and paying a fare on the bus now and again. As long as we try and feel empathy then at least it could mean a change of attitude in this country and eventually a message to the government that no man or woman or child should be sleeping in a doorway in modern Britain.