The Hopelessness of Homeless Mike
‘Mike’ is sitting outside the station as I walk past on my way to get the night train in the early hours after taking some pictures. I’ve got twenty minutes to kill so I say hi and ask if he minds me sitting with him. He says no, go ahead.
We start chatting and he says he’s been on the streets for around a decade, on-and-off. We discover we’re about the same age, in our early thirties. He tells me he was brought up on the South Coast, that his father died when he was young and his mum moved to France some years ago.
“How come you’re on the streets?”
“Well basically, it’s pretty sad to say, but depression, man. I suffer from it badly. It sounds lame but it’s really bad and has affected everything in my life.”
“And what’s that like for you?”
“It’s awful. It’s just the worst thing ever… It’s like I can’t do anything and don’t want to go on living, but I haven’t even got the guts to kill myself.”
“Have you sought help?”
“Well, there’re people in some homeless hostels, but it’s difficult. How am I supposed to see the positives in life when I’m stuck on the streets? Look at this man, this is what I’ve made tonight, in five hours sitting here, no-one to speak to, people looking at me like I’m a piece of shit, people swearing at you. It’s horrible man, it’s just horrible.” He pulls out a handful of change from his pocket, which can’t add up more than a pound or so.
“I don’t want to live like this but I don’t know what else to do. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Is that what you’d say depression is? Hopelessness?”
“Yes. Exactly, man.”
“Have you ever been attacked on the streets?”
“Yeah, a couple of times.”
“The last time, a group of lads just came up and started spitting on me and kicking me for no reason when I was begging.”
“What did you do?”
“I just curled up into a ball and took the beating until they went away. They broke my tooth in half, this one here. It’s horrible man, it’s just horrible…”
Those words, it’s horrible man, it’s just horrible, will resound in my head for a very long time. He says them with such sincerity, feeling and pain that he cannot be lying. He’s clearly an open, genuine and lovely man and he reminds me very much of two other lovely men I know, both in personality and looks. I often get that – people remind me so strongly of other people I know that I cannot help but group them together: the bullshitters, the heroes, the actors, the naturals, the manipulators, the genuines, the travellers, the fighters, the enigmas, the healers and so on – I guess we’re all parts of these personas at some points in our lives. Mike’s a carer; I think he’d suit a partner who needs his help. I ask him if he’s got a girlfriend. He says no, not for a long time.
“When’s the last time you saw your mum?”
“Not too long ago, but that was after a long time of not seeing her – she didn’t want anything to do with me…”
“She said I had to sort myself out and didn’t want to see me until I had.”
“Sort yourself out how?”
“You know: my life, my problems and that, man.”
“What like? Mental health? Addictions?”
“Mental health. I don’t have addiction problems. I’m only drinking this because I’m fucking bored on the streets.”
He takes a small sip from a can of super strong lager and offers me some.
“You’re lucky if you don’t have addictions, I’d say… So did that hurt, your mum cutting you off like that?”
“Yes, man. It hurt. It hurt a lot! Like, she gave birth to me, she brought me up… And then she goes and does that. I don’t understand how she can be like that, man… I’m too sensitive, I know, but it hurt so much. But that’s just the way she is…”
I nod, not knowing what to say, and think how lucky I’ve been in my life to have friends and family that care about me, and how I’ve probably taken that for granted for so long.
“I didn’t want to see her for years. Not because she cut me off – I still love her, she’s my mum! But because I didn’t want her to see me like this. I mean, look at me.”
“You don’t look too bad, man…”
“I do, man. I look like shit.”
“No, you don’t. I’ve chatted to a lot of people on the streets and you’re in pretty good shape.”
“Ah, I don’t know about that. I do try to keep myself from getting too bad, but it’s hard.”
I ask Mike why his arm’s in a cast.
“Oh man. I had a baaaaad fall. I fell in between two buildings and onto a railing and broke my leg, my hip and my arm.”
“Shit. When was that?”
“About two years ago.”
“Wow, and it’s still in a cast?”
“Yeah, I was in hospital a long time and when I came out I needed to get physio on my arm but I missed a couple of appointments, so the muscles didn’t strengthen properly and it broke again. I’m not very big, as you can see, and I think I’ve got brittle bones. I don’t eat a lot…”
“Did your mum come and see you in hospital?”
“Yeah, I eventually rung her. Because I needed to. And she came over to see me.”
“What was that like?”
“It was really emotional, man. I burst into tears when I saw her… I do that a lot, when things get too much…”
“What did she do?”
“She burst into tears as well. And then we hugged…”
I can see that he’s quite emotional talking about it.
“But afterwards she left, and I haven’t heard from her again.”
Mike’s friend, a homeless person called ‘Tim’, who I’ve met before but doesn’t recognize me, comes up and gives Mike some chicken nuggets.
“Someone just bought me twelve mate. There’s six left for you.”
Mike offers me a nugget and then bites into one himself, complaining about his bad molar, which has broken down to the root and needs fixing. It looks like it’s causing him a lot of pain but he gently chews away.
“I don’t know how people can eat these really, they’re not very tasty are they! But then, I’m not in a position to complain…”
I laugh. Mike’s completely aware of his situation in the world and has a more astute a grasp on reality than most people I meet, whether they’re homeless or not. But he’s obviously unable to get out of this rut he’s in. He needs help. He needs more than just a chat with me at the end of a night, though I hope in some way I’m helping.
“What’s in your bag”, he asks me.
“Hmmm, every possession I care about in the world, just about: my laptop, camera and hard drive. I take pictures and write some stuff. Sometimes of homeless people, if they don’t mind…”
“You’re not taking mine, sorry man. No way. I don’t want people seeing me like this…”
“You don’t look too bad, man! Honestly…” But he’s not listening. He’s unable to get out of that particular rut right now. “No worries”, I tell him. “I’ll write up our conversation instead. I’ve been taking pictures all night anyway… So, what’s in your bag?”
“In mine? Everything I own in the world, man: two jumpers, a t-shirt and a pair of jeans.” I look at him, eyes wide open, slowly nodding, doing my best to hold back the shock. It’s a sobering moment, indeed.
A middle-aged man walks past us, one of the few who has since I’ve been sitting with Mike. He’s smoking a cigarette and is about to stub it out when Mike asks, “Can I have the rest of that cigarette if you’re finished with it, sir?” The Scotsman laughs and says gruffly, “Aye, alright”, and gives it to Mike before walking off chuckling to himself. I ask Mike if I’m putting other people off giving him change by sitting with him.
“No, no worries. There’s no-one about anyway, man. Another slow night… What time’s your train anyway?
“Um, it was ten minutes ago.”
“Shit, man. You should have got it!”
“Na, it’s cool, don’t worry. I’m enjoying chatting to you.”
“Yeah? Me too, man…”
We chat more over the next hour or two, about how his depression lead him to lose his job and flat and end up on the streets, and I begin to realise more and more that Mike’s problems are in his head, almost completely. But they’re also surmountable; he just needs help to get over them, but by himself. It’s a tricky one, and maybe he’s heard it all before. He probably has.
I tell him I think he’s a genuine guy and I suggest he crashes on my sofa for rest of the night, if he wants to. He says thanks, but he wouldn’t feel right, plus it’s almost light anyway.
“And to be honest, I haven’t been further than a mile or so from here in a long time.”
“Really? Wow. It’s a big world out there and I’m sure you’d like a lot of it.”
“Maybe, man. But I like to know where I am, you know. I guess I hold onto that…”
“Yeah. Fair enough.”
Before I go, I suggest to him that breaking out of that comfort zone might actually do him some good and make him see the possibilities of a world beyond that which he’s used to, and he agrees it makes sense, but that it’s easier said than done for him…
I can’t help but think that Mike would be the loveliest of friends and that he doesn’t deserve to be on the streets. I used to believe that good things happen to good people. I’m not so sure anymore. The more people I meet, the more injustice I see and the more I understand that kindness and sincerity of spirit, however far they go to help our souls, rarely lead to prosperity in the short term. They have to be coupled with drive and determination. The yin and yang of a ‘successful’ and happy life, perhaps. I guess we don’t always get what we deserve in life, we get what we fight for. It seems like Mike’s stopped fighting. Or maybe he doesn’t know how. I hope I see him again.
© Compo June 2014
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