A no-holds-barred study of homelessness in 21st century Britain. No stats, no speeches, no spin. BY ALEX CAMPBELL
Down and Out in 2009
HE CITY OF York, Blake Street, three in the morning. A furious blaze of roaring car exhausts tore through the silence. The boy racers were speeding from McDonald’s, kebab shops slamming their doors, and the last drunken students staggering home. Then peace. Silence, save for the pattering of rain on rooftops. The city would lay dormant for six hours before businessmen and tourists streamed between the ancient walls. Nobody was there, not a soul. Just ask the police. A patrol car crawled through the blackened city centre and, to all intents and purposes, the two officers spotted nobody. But we weren’t really alone. The eyes of the officers had glazed over it, but they’d driven through a morbid underworld. They’d driven by the Three Musketeers, bearded and middle-aged, who sipped “Diamond White” until daybreak. They’d rolled past the four beggars, draped in sodden rags, who huddled each night in the doorway of Natwest. And they’d missed the scattered, motionless human humps cowered in the monstrous shadows of the Minster. Its gardens a cemetery for the living. When the revellers fall into bed, the taxi drivers turn for home and the darkened buses splutter to the depots, the real day’s work begins for those without a roof. The cloak of darkness hides a sinister society of iniquity, madness and desperation. I entered this world with no plans, no real idea of what I faced. Like most, I expected a pantomime of weathered destitutes. I expected a catand-mouse battle to elude a dangerous few. What I found was a life dominated simply by boredom and loathing. Yes, there are pockets of people who cling together in misery, but their only real bond is with survival. Their greatest threat is usually not from each other, but from the lurkers with whom they share their darkness.
COUPLE of hours into my first night I witnessed a drugs deal. A small white van with chrome-plated wheels stopped alongside a timeworn BMW, just minutes from the city centre. Money and a small bag changed hands. I saw the white van stop so many times over the following days that I came to look out for it, as with a friendly face on the way to work. Later, as I sheltered from the rains beneath the museum’s grandiose entrance, a car pulled up on
the opposite side of the square. Within minutes it was rocking violently to the rhythm of a woman’s screams, its windows misted. Tomorrow, a silverhaired tourist would be sitting at the exact spot, grinning obliviously and photographing the museum on his mobile phone. I paced for hours in search of a place to sleep. Nowhere seemed warm enough, or safe enough. When I settled for a small, sheltered alcove on a pathway to the cinema I almost bundled straight into another figure. A pale, ginger-bearded man was sitting in a sleeping bag, knees pulled to his chest. He clung to his legs for warmth and clasped his hands in the amber glare of the streetlight. He was praying. After miles of walking, I saw the large ornamental clock above Coney Street - it was quarter to four. Three more hours until daylight, four or five until the day really began. And then what? Only the right to begin the cycle again. Every so often I nodded off, just for a minute or so, and a chilling gust of wind woke me with a start. The cold gets no easier to tolerate as time passes. It’s parasitic, crawling through every fibre of clothing, spreading like a rash across the skin. At the time it is impossible to think about anything else. At daybreak I came across a burly, whitebearded man in the public toilets. “I bet you’ve been bloody freezing,” he said, wedging an empty bottle under one of the warm taps. I turned to face him, explaining I hadn’t slept much. His shoulders were rounded and stooped as though he’d once been much fatter, but now his stained black jumper hung from him. “Horrible. It’s horrible,” he said, his eyes moistened and red. “Did you try at the station? You might get a good night at the station, nice and warm, nice and warm in there.”
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“No, I’ll have a go later though, good idea,” I said, finding my voice croaked and timorous. “Nice and warm,” he said again, shooting me a grandfatherly wink. He was dishevelled, but he spoke clearly and even proudly. We walked outside to the car park and he climbed into the back of a white Transit van where he’d wedged a mattress and sheets. His home.
URING THE DAY homeless people drift. Some head to the parks, opened at eight, and try to catch sleep while it’s slightly warmer. Others disappear for a few hours, some to friends’ flats, before emerging at lunch to beg for their supper. The beggars are a tangible link between the confusing world of darkness and the oblivious rhythm of the day. But they’re easily
and he’d probably spotted me lurking at night as he slumped in the alley. But he didn’t care who I was, why should he? The pockets of homeless who roam in groups and sleep in huddles give the impression that it’s a club with open membership. In reality they’re just the ones who can’t bear the loneliness. Many are sickened by company, half embarrassment, half resentment. Some are simply too drunk or insane to speak. It rained incessantly that week and the wind grew violent by afternoon, sending litter swirling in circles. I found a bench in the city gardens, sheltered on all sides by thick trees. I drifted in and out of sleep so that each time I blinked the scene before me changed. Family of five walking together… Japanese tourists pointing at trees… old man bent against the wind. I couldn’t have
I was sick with tiredness and growing delusional. I’d begun spotting figures in place of lampposts and hearing whispers in the wind. ignored, and their trade is a stultifying bore. Most seemed to raise £5-6 a day - enough to survive, but nothing more. Eating is one of the few things that rouses spirits. York is overflowing with restaurants, cafés and tea rooms; wasteful mounds of food mock from every window. Hunger pain attacks in waves, coiling around your stomach and squeezing inwards. At times you can physically feel yourself getting thinner, or at least that’s how it feels at the time. On the second morning I ate at ‘Café Veranda’, a greasy joint with an aspidistra in the window and the menu written in soap on a mirror. The praying man was there too. He was scrawny and etiolated, but younger than I’d thought. He stank of faeces, even from yards away. We arrived before opening and stared vacantly at the farce of the morning: coffee drunkards marching to work, buses coughing out commuters, early bird tourists craning their necks at every building. Inside, he eyed me from across the room. He didn’t want to talk to anyone and clearly had no interest in me. I’d tramped past him the day before while he begged on one of the old cobbled roads,
cared less who saw me. At one point a caricature pensioner, sporting tweeds and flatcap, lost his hat to the gust. It billowed 20-yards behind him and he swiped at it helplessly, reaching to support his aching back. I should have helped him. Ordinarily I would, but I found myself enjoying the spectacle and drifting back into slumber before I could move. Sometimes I caught the reaction of passersby. Flocks of menopausal women would be staging haughty conversations, only to fall silent as they passed me. Some walkers would ‘tut’ sympathetically. Young parents would quicken their pace and urge their children to hurry along with a polite ‘come on Jack’. Two other drifters sat in the park for most of the day, both getting this treatment, both apathetic. Early on the second afternoon I took refuge in the library after raising eyebrows in the high street shops. I walked in purposefully. But I needed no pretences. The library was crawling with the city’s poor, some homeless and others simply idle. Students and pensioners browsed shelves and computers while the dishevelled gathered around tables and armchairs at the back. The shelves
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there were full of large print books and celebrity biographies as if the library was expecting the unwashed and uneducated to gather there. It was a tragic scene. There were eight or nine men, moth-bitten and pallid in the merciless glare of the lights. A couple of them took an interest in their books, but most placed them ostensibly on the table and allowed their sagging, rotting faces to fall limp against their shoulders. All wore greasy, fraying fleeces and trousers smeared with earth or speckles of paint. Flashbacks to a time when they had worked and earned. And lived. I learned later that some of the homeless charities advise their clients to use the libraries, but this scene of destitution and misery is probably not what they planned. We dozed here for most of the day.
N THE SECOND night I walked to a homeless shelter on the edge of the city. I knew they wouldn’t offer a bed but I was curious about what I’d find. It was a smart square building with large windows and clean white walls inside. A lot like a student hall of residence, only set against a backdrop of boarded-up terraces and flaking walls. It was surrounded by 5ft iron gates, penning in ‘guests’. A man with a greasy grey pony tail was chatting to a friend inside the gates. When his friend left, I asked why he wasn’t inside. “They won’t let me go in that fucking place, they won’t recognise me as homeless,” he said quickly, like he’d been waiting to explain. “I’ve tried before and they’ve fucked me off cos my brother’s got a flat. “I wouldn’t want to go in anyway, arse holes, the lot of ‘em. I know somebody in one of these who had his fucking eyes glued shut. Shit holes.” We stared silently through the gates for a minute before he took off with a ‘seeya duck’. I was sick with tiredness by this point and growing delusional. I’d begun spotting figures in place of lampposts and hearing whispers in the wind. Inevitable symptoms of a life without stimulation - or sleep. A group of students, scousers, stopped to ask me how I was and wish me good night. Another group, alternative sorts with ear lobe rings and eye-liner, shouted ‘Big Issue’ from across the street. I saw a drunken middle-aged man fall flat on the concrete with a smack. As the night grew colder, the circus of the
evening resumed. A fat Indian man walked over to me, speaking in tongues and gesticulating. I thought for a moment he might attack me but a pair of hooded youths warned him off, shouting about immigrants. The city was emptying, the buses were dark and taxis were turning for home. And so down again into the underworld. I headed through the city walls to the train station, driven by biting winds. I passed a skinhead excreting at the side of a road, shouting at his friends in a blue Ford Focus to buy him toilet roll. The same car sped past me an hour later, one of its passengers yelling ‘scag head’ and hurling an empty Fanta bottle. The station was a fortress of golden lights and comfortable seats. A beefy, grizzled man in rags was marched out by a security guard as I arrived, so I waited. I fished a newspaper out of the bin, The Press, and read it from cover to cover. I rocked, shivered and dithered until the sky turned azure above the city wall in front of me. The only sound was from the occasional Royal Mail lorries, tearing through puddles on the road with a ‘shhhh’. Eventually I skulked in. It was still cold inside, but the platform seats were comfortable. The station at this time in the morning is a bizarre spectacle. Postmen scuttling across the platform, a swollen fat man unpacking newspapers outside WH Smith, a scowling black girl stacking bottles of semi-skimmed in Starbucks. An obese woman rode a floor-polisher around them, packing her trousers as though she’d been poured into them. And then there were the lunatics. A balding man with greasy, butter-coloured hair to his shoulders was pacing the station. He wore a long beige mac and unusually smart shoes. I’d spotted him the previous afternoon, accosting tourists for precisely £1.60. There was the old lady, her leathered face crawling with lines, who’d come inside for shelter. She sang out loud and shot scything glances at anybody who stared at her. Occasionally she would lurk around the timetables and read times aloud, maintaining a lunatic pretence that she was going somewhere, anywhere. And there was the scrawny old man, dressed all in black, who spent most nights sitting crosslegged outside McDonald’s. He never begged, never spoke, but he had a disquieting habit of stopping to stare at people for protracted periods. At one point he stood two yards away, gazing
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vacuously toward me without moving. I froze, unsure whether to speak or move. He monitored me coldly for several minutes, as a lion scouts its prey, and eventually shuffled on. At daybreak I went into the toilets to wash, gagging on the urine fumes. The man in the beige mac followed me. “Are you alright there, matey?” he said. I was halfway into a cubicle and cursing my luck that he’d spotted me. “I’m alright mate, what about you?” “I’m alright, except I always need a piss. I keep on needing a piss. Always, always needin’ a piss,” he said, slurring and falling into the wall. He was drunk. “What’s wrong with my penis, matey? What’s wrong with my penis?” he said, shouting to me but facing the urinal. On the evening of my third day I decided I couldn’t stomach another night in the open air. I took the train ticket from my sock and boarded the 22:13 to normality. My teeth were stained yellow and throbbing. I was weak, dirty, aching and blistered. I’d been driven to hallucinations by a lack of sleep. I’d spent just three days on the streets.
The pathway to darkness
isa was gorgeous. Her mum knew it, and her mum knew the boys at school knew it. Lisa’s stepdad knew it too, but nobody noticed that at first. They’d survived for years with only her mum’s shelf-stacking to keep them going. Lisa got used to going without new shoes and sometimes going hungry until the child support cleared. But when Lisa was 10, everything changed. Her mum met Frank, a solicitor. He wore a black suit and drove a big Volvo which turned heads on the estate. The other kids in the street said he was ‘posh’. After a few months he started bringing Lisa presents – toys, clothes, CDs. When Frank asked them to move in to his big, red-bricked house on St Mathew’s Drive, they were thrilled. Lisa was growing into a beautiful teenager. She had pink cheeks, a small button nose and wavy ash blonde hair to her shoulders. Frank’s type. It was subtle at first. Long, lecherous glances
while nobody was looking. Sometimes he’d demand a ‘big kiss’ if he came into Lisa’s room with make-up for her, or a CD she’d asked for. When she was 13 the abuse started. It was violent and explicit. Frank pinned her to the bed with his forearm and clapped his hand over her mouth. She was raped. At first she was too scared and ashamed to say anything. She was raped six or seven times. She became terrified and repulsed by the idea of going home and sat crying in the street after school. Lisa was wise enough to know it would break her mum’s heart, but she needed help. One afternoon after school she said she needed to talk. Her heart was beating so hard she could feel it throbbing in her arms and head, but she managed to spit the words out. “Don’t be stupid Lisa,” her mother said, parsing her lips in that middle class voice she’d been trying out. “If you don’t like Frank but you’ll have to grow up. You mustn’t say such disgusting things.” Lisa started staying away from home, afraid of the horrors lurking behind closed doors. She’d hang around on kids’ parks or by the shops for hours – sometimes all night. She got talking to the people with whom she shared the darkness, the people her mum called ‘the bad crowd’. She started smoking and drinking. The police would drag her home comatose, regurgitated cider drying on to her bare chest. Her mum thought she was going off the rails like a lot of teens do and locked Lisa in her room. But then, when her mother was shopping, Frank would slide in and have his way. Aged 15 Lisa left home for the last time, with no qualifications and nothing but a duffle bag of clothes. She stayed with ‘the bad crowd’, on sofas and lounge floors in council flats and garages. She used a lot of heroin. It helped her forget about Frank, about his shiny bald head and his swollen face; grimacing with pleasure as she screamed into the muzzle of his palm. At first it was free. She was pretty, after all, and the dealers saw sense in getting her using. But it wasn’t long before she had to make herself ‘available’ to dealers, and it wasn’t long before she was looking for ‘punters’ full-time. The bad crowd got bored with Lisa. She’d become a junkie, and good for nothing else. The offers of sofas and floors dried up and she took to the streets, sleeping in the porch
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of a working men’s club. Some days she’d flutter her eyelashes at shopkeepers and get enough food to keep her alive. Other days she’d just steal, too high to care. It was a small town, the shop-keepers knew Lisa well, and if she fluttered her eyelashes enough they didn’t call the police. After nine months of seeing her slumped across the pavements, a local women’s refuge started asking her inside for a cup of tea and a shower. It was strictly for domestic violence victims, but Lisa was young, pretty. They felt sorry for her. At first she refused, thinking they’d take her stash or hand her over to police. But eventually, crawling with disease and malnourished to the brink of collapse, she went inside. She was 17. Most of her old friends on St Mathew’s estate were taking driving lessons
UK who leave with no qualifications and no plans. The care system had done enough to keep him alive, but nothing more. At 16 he moved permanently on to the streets. Like Lisa, he had looks on his side. The refuges and charities took special interest in him. He had thick dark hair, olive skin and brilliant azure eyes. He was softly spoken and always polite. He tried working once or twice, but he couldn’t stick to anything. He was plagued by an indelible restlessness. There was always something at the back of his mind making him anxious, irritated, even scared. His counsellors said he always felt guilty but never knew why. Drugs were the only way out. He tried a bit of everything. Crack was his favourite; for a few minutes he’d be so deliriously smashed that nothing bad could cross his mind. But when he came
He was found at the Giro Drop. His lips were purple blue and his skin was cold and white like chicken. He’d overdosed on Saturday night. and getting stuck into their A-Levels. The refuge wasn’t a fast track to normality. Lisa was hooked, and quite often she’d sneak out after the 9pm curfew for a few punters and a fix. But it was a start. Social services helped her clean up her act. Lisa is 23 now, and she has a mortgage. But social services aren’t always this successful.
ICK WAS institutionalised from the age of six. He didn’t know what happened to his parents, said he didn’t care. He was pushed between different foster families and spent his teen years in a children’s home near Burntwood, West Midlands. In the home he was at the mercy of some bad people. Some were helplessly deranged after a lifetime without anybody to love them, others seemed inherently evil. On a good week, he’d survive with only a fat lip or a black eye. Sometimes he ran away, trying his luck on the streets. He tragically underestimated the brutality of life without shelter - not from the wind and rain, but from people. Rick was raped by several fully-grown men before his 14th birthday. He was one of the 53% of kids in care in the
down he was erratic. Sometimes he’d be chatting amiably to a care worker and, without warning, he’d spit at them. Or swing a punch. He fell in with a few other homeless lads his own age and they showed him an empty flat they used. It was on the 18th floor of a filthy high-rise tower, abandoned after a fire. They used it as a ‘Giro drop’, somewhere they could give as their address and get a bit of money together. It was also somewhere they could hit up in peace. Rick liked drugs, and he liked to escape. But he wanted to get better. He took the anti-depressants the doctor prescribed and he visited a drop-in centre called Rethink whenever it was open. He liked going there, and they liked having him. He was good-looking and well-mannered; at 21 he was still young enough to have a chance of a normal life. The centre had high hopes for him, and one Saturday morning he told a counsellor he’d been clean for three weeks - he was ready to ask the council for help in getting off the streets. The following Tuesday he was found at the Giro Drop. His lips were purple blue and his skin was cold and white like chicken. He’d overdosed
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on Saturday night. There was only one person at the funeral - one of the carers from Rethink. It was as if he’d never existed.
CTOBER 1, 2003. The curtains were drawn when Derek got home from work. His wife Maria was sitting in the armchair, in the dark. Her eyes were raw and her make-up ran in dark streaks down her face. “I’ve got cancer, Derek,” she said, without turning to look at him. And then she wept, and the two of them wept together for hours. Derek was on his knees, clasping her so tight she couldn’t move. That was the end of life as he knew it. Over the next six months he watched everything he loved about his wife disappear. She couldn’t laugh or smile without straining, and when she did it couldn’t hide the misery in her grey eyes. She lost stones in weight and her skin, stained yellow, sagged against her pointed bones. Derek didn’t know what to do. He was a joiner, he pulled in £25,000 a year and spent Friday and Saturday nights in the pub. He had a grown up son and a season ticket ‘up the Villa’. That was it, he was ‘just a regular bloke’. He hit the drink. Maria was in bed for eight every night, if she was out of hospital. It was just him and the television. Friends and family stopped visiting because Maria wasn’t up to guests. Derek stopped going to football because he felt guilty about leaving her. He was lonely. Maria died in April. Derek was given three weeks’ leave from work, but he never went back. Instead, he collapsed into depression. He spent nights drinking alone and days lying in bed. The house became squalid and stank of rotting food. The only time Derek got up was to sign on, or buy more booze. Always lager. “You can get four cans of lager for the price of a bottle of Coke,” he said. He never paid his bills and didn’t care about them anyway. The only thing he could focus on was how he’d pay for his next drink. It kept him sedated; too sloshed to wonder what he might do next. Sobriety was an insufferable headache. When the eviction notice came he turned to his son, Chris, for help. Chris was 26, a trainee accountant settled into a house in Tamworth . They clashed straight away. Chris was shocked at how much his Dad had aged - he was 56 but looked 70. His hair was mottled white and grey and he was gaunt and haggard.
Chris walked in from work one night to find his Dad lying on the floor – wetting himself. He kicked Derek out that night and told him to get off the booze or stay away. He spent the nights wandering the town, and the days creeping into parks and sleeping on benches. He begged what he could and drank the profits. The police knew he was a drinker and always moved him on. One afternoon he woke in the town centre, wetting himself. “I just wondered where it had all gone, where everything I had was gone,” he said. “I’d become summert you’d read about in the paper. I used to be just a regular bloke.” Two days later the police found him having a fit. He was shaking violently, hyperventilating, and his eyes were rolling backwards. Paramedics thought he’d overdosed, but he’d actually had a nervous breakdown. Derek, the joiner with the season ticket up the Villa, was sectioned. He spent six months in a Mental Hospital. Now he’s back on the streets.
OHN WAS a family man. He woke at six, let the dog out into the yard, and after a shower he caught the bus to work. Most mornings he was gone before his wife and daughter woke, but the thought of them kept him going. It was a laborious factory job, working long, monotonous hours in the sweltering heat of a flour factory. But it paid the bills and kept the bailiffs away. More importantly, it fed baby Ella and his wife Sandra. For John, that was more than enough. A year or so down the line things were changing quickly. John and Sandra weren’t getting on. Ella’s birth had brought them closer together, but two years later it wasn’t working. John was desperate to keep trying, but one night in November he jumped off the bus with a bunch of flowers and saw the house in darkness. He knew what had happened before he opened the door. Sandra had threatened this a hundred times, and now she was gone. Ella too. He saw Ella only twice in the next few months. Sandra had sent her mother to drop her off. John saw nobody else; he brushed off his workmates, ignored his family, and only pulled himself out of bed at weekends if Ella was coming. With nobody to look after, the house grew filthy. Scaly, blackened crocks lay in stacks around the kitchen, mounds of dirty clothes filled the living
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room and empty cans of lager peered from every ledge. There was talk of John having to meet Ella somewhere else - or not see her at all. One Sunday night he drank so much he didn’t wake up on Monday morning. He didn’t bother ringing work to explain, he didn’t bother doing anything in fact. He just lay in bed – for two weeks. Nobody paid the bills. John could have arranged to increase his housing benefit after losing his job. He could have claimed dole, or looked for another job. But none of that was possible from his filthy bedroom, so none of it was done. When the eviction notice came he didn’t argue. It wasn’t because he was drunk; it was because he just didn’t care. A couple of weeks later he was huddled in a blanket and begging outside Spar.
IKE WAS one of our boys. In 1996 he was a Captain in the British Army, serving Operation Banner in Northern Ireland. By 2006 he was brooding in the same drop-in centre as Rick, playing Scrabble against Jane, a counsellor, and sweeping the board onto the floor if she thought of a good word. The army was all Mike had known. He drifted in and out of labouring jobs after quitting school and thought he was destined for obscurity. The military gave him a purpose, and he gave it everything he had. In 1999 he was shot by a sniper. The bullet ripped through his left shoulder, tearing through the muscle and splitting the bone. He lay paralysed by shock for several minutes. And then tried to get up and walk away. He was a loose cannon, an aggressive soldier who took risks and put his safety last. His seniors said he was a credit to the forces. But in 2005 Mike was offered a ‘resettlement package’ and it was made clear that he had to accept. After 13 years of drills, orders, discipline and comradery, civilian life angered and baffled him. He took a job as a HGV driver in Birmingham and paid for a flat with his resettlement money. It suited him, he loathed the people who walked the streets and the driving kept him blissfully alone. But Mike had problems. He lay awake at night fantasising about the army. Sometimes he woke in a furious temper and throttled fistshaped holes into the wall. The doctor said he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but Mike refused to talk about why.
Instead he boozed. He boozed to erase memories that crawled like insects through his imagination, he boozed to black out the tempers that wrenched him from the brink of sleep. One morning Mike was breathalysed in a spot-check before work. He was over the limit and sacked on the spot. The next day he took a train to Southampton, his home town, and spent thousands on a month-long drinking bout that left him in intensive care. Soon Mike had nothing left. He lost his flat in Birmingham and slept in New Street train station, the only sheltered place he could think of. He was a burly man, six feet tall and square shaped. He took whatever he wanted from anybody, by force if necessary. He started going to a drop-in centre, finding the company helped him wile the all-consuming boredom of the streets. The counsellors there couldn’t persuade him to talk about himself. “He was a closed book. Speaking to somebody is the making of some people and they turn their lives around, but he just couldn’t admit he was in trouble,” Jane Bethany, his counsellor, said. Life in the Army had taught him to grit his teeth and get on with it. It wasn’t that he didn’t want help, he physically couldn’t ask for it. He avoided questions by trying to bully the carers, standing above them and puffing out his chest, or sneering at them from the corner of the room. He often disappeared for weeks on drinking bouts with ex-Army pals. It didn’t cause a lot of alarm at the centre when he didn’t turn up for a few weeks in early 2007, the counsellors thought he’d be back in a few days with a sore head and a temper. But he never came back. Jane was the last person at the centre to speak to him. “The last time he came in he was down in the dumps, more so than usual. “He said he was sick of sleeping rough, sick of going days without a drink, sick of nobody caring about what happened to him after everything he’d done for Britain. “I remember giving him a cup of tea and trying to talk through his options with him, but he wasn’t having any of it. Every time I mentioned homeless shelters or getting help from the council he just lost his temper.” And where is he now? “There’s no doubt that he’s dead in a ditch.”n A.Campbell
*Names have been changed