Although Martin was in his early seventies and I was in my early twenties, we shared many similarities. We both liked jacket potatoes. We both had bad posture. We were both quiet and anxious. We both hated the Tories. We both thought the heads of the council I worked for were incompetent and corrupt. And we both felt despair about the way vulnerable people were being treated.
Whenever I saw Martin walking around town he’d be wearing a black trilby, a black coat and one white glove on his left hand, regardless of the weather. He walked taking the smallest of steps with his arms bent so that his hands hung limply in front of his chest, as if resting on an imaginary bar. Despite his anxious demeanour, his eye contact could be intense. He studied everyone and everything around him as if the world were a puzzle he struggled to figure out. He was well-read and cerebral. He liked to talk about George Orwell. His favourite place to go was the local Waterstones, where he whiled away the afternoons, sometimes spending close to three hours looking at books, which irked the store manager and the younger employees who decided he must be a ‘weirdo’. He was enigmatic; he shared profound insights and deep thought with strangers yet didn’t divulge much about his personal life to those who knew him.
I met Martin in the winter of 2015 in a church hall lined with tall, hazardous-looking electric heaters and fold out tables. I was three months into my role as a housing officer for a local council; my first 9-5 job after university. I started the job following six unhappy months of unemployment and thus took it seriously, working long hours and carrying out the smallest tasks fastidiously. Part of my job was to attend a drop-in for homeless people and offer them advice about how to access housing. The drop-in was run by a group of benevolent Christians who greeted everyone with warm smiles and busied themselves in the kitchen making countless jugs of tea and coffee. Martin was sat at a table with three other men, looking sombrely at a mug of milky Nescafe and hunched over as if attempting to make his body as small as possible.
I was introduced by a volunteer who explained to him how I might be able to help. Martin's eyes filled with fear and worry as he told me how his house had been broken into by his neighbours. How they’d only recently moved to the cul de sac, how they’d smashed the kitchen door leaving glass everywhere and pushed him against the wall waving a baseball bat in his face. How the police were letting them off. How he was too terrified to return and had been sleeping in parks and woodland for the past three weeks. How he rarely changed his clothes. How he hadn’t drank for years but was increasingly tempted to break his sobriety.
After going over legislation in my head and realising the likely options available to him were dire - a bunk bed in a shelter – I explained what I could and couldn’t do and asked what he would like. After a long silence, he said he didn’t know.
It was soon clear however that he didn’t want to talk about sleeping rough anymore. He wanted to talk about books and politics and the council and how I’d recently moved to the area. He wanted to talk about the historic significance of the town and how he moved here after writing a history book twenty years ago that had done ‘quite well’ and how he’d done a bit of acting in the seventies. This life sounded colourful and glamorous and did not match up with the meek demeanour revealed someone who was diffident, lost and not very sure of themself.
Despite our differences in age, I quickly felt comfortable around Martin; we visited a bookshop together in my lunch break after our first meeting and we had pleasant conversations at the drop-ins that followed.
I’d opened a case for Martin on the system after the first drop-in and sought advice from my manager, who I discovered already knew him, as did many other local services. Devoid of emotion, she stated the obvious; because he had a house, he was not technically homeless. He would have to sell the house and move. Which he didn’t want to do, or rather, didn’t know how to. He was clearly suffering and so traumatised that he was willing to sacrifice his health by sleeping on the streets. Well, that’s all his choice, my manager would say, nonchalantly.
Martin also refused help from mental health support services. Four in five homeless people suffer with poor mental health and it can be both the cause and consequence of homelessness. Psychiatrists’ stress that homeless people with deteriorating mental health often refuse help and often show no emotional expression, which can make things difficult for services trying to help them. It is sometimes said that the homeless person has made a “lifestyle choice”, which should be respected. However, a choice to stay on the street, or refuse help, is nearly always driven by very poor mental health, including trauma. This was the case with Martin.
Months went by and I changed jobs. I continued seeing Martin wandering through the narrow streets of the town centre, never going home. I last saw him on a gloomy afternoon in January three years ago. He looked cadaverous and his coat and trousers were specked with mud and grass stains. His eyes looked fearful as they darted around and behind me. His cheeks and right hand were red, and the white glove was replaced with one made of plastic. I felt a pang of sadness and remembered how I’d declined an invite from him after our first conversation at the drop-in:
“Martin asked me to go for a cup of tea.”
I’d told my manager back at the office. She laughed, derisively.
“Would you even want to?”
I contemplated, and decided I would.
Her expression turned serious. “We can’t do that.”
I decided to decline his invite at the time, too concerned with seeming unprofessional, and our friendship remained inchoate.
That we can connect with people who, on the surface, appear completely different to us. I also wanted to highlight the problem of homelessness and mental health in the UK and to humanise those who are often dehumanised. Like many, the reasons behind why Martin became homeless were complex, so I also aimed to show how there is no typical experience of homelessness.
After re-reading my lede I can now see how the style shamelessly mirrors Susan’s!