Yesterday, I saw one of the Big Issue sellers I’ve spoken to a few times in the past few weeks while on my way to the Tesco Metro in the city centre to buy some veggies. I didn’t recognise him at first as he was hunched over his bag busy with something small. As I approached, I realised my friend, who I shall call George for the rest of this post, was rolling a cigarette… using bits of tobacco torn from the scavenged “dog ends” he’d gathered from the streets during his days. I knew he smoked before, but I assumed like other homeless people I knew in the city, he begged enough to buy tobacco or was given it by kind strangers occasionally. I had a chat to him and found out he was having an unusually shit day. Not worse because he had failed to sell any papers that day as that was something he was regularly used to; rather he’d started the morning feeling hopeful thanks to a £5 free gift from a stranger. Now he was about to head towards a local hostel to beg nearby in hope that he would get the £10 needed to have a bed for the night.
I offered to buy him some food and he apologised for the imposition of asking, but he would much prefer if I helped him with something else. I told him not to feel as though he was “being cheeky” for asking, especially when I discovered what his request was: pay the £5 he needed to get some passport photos done in the shopping centre photo booth so he could get his citizenship card signed the following day at his doctor’s appointment. I was shocked that he’d spent all day (he usually starts selling the big issue at around 9.30am and when I met him it was just past 5pm) and no one had spoken to him long enough to find that this was his goal for the day’s day to day- when one is homeless, one cannot have longer-term goals.
In the past I’ve spoken to George and found his story isn’t unlike many others’. Some sort of family breakdown or job loss- very rarely criminality is involved but when it is, most are quick to admit it and feel ashamed of it. I don’t know enough about George’s story to feel confident in retelling it without there being too large of gaps in his story that would leave it open to accusations of him lying to gain sympathy. I wouldn’t even care anyway.
I can only imagine after one night in the streets (a few years ago in Manchester, waiting for a more appropriate time than the middle of the night to call friends and ask for shelter after being (gladly) ejected from the “family” home) what it would be like having to live like that for months. This seems to affect me increasingly lately while reading the work of Giorgio Agamben, particularly the series “Homo Sacer”. Is George an example of sacred man here? Bare life goes on.