This time last year I spent my days studying to become a journalist on a fast track course in Manchester.
If you’ve ever been to Manchester then without doubt you would’ve noticed the homeless, the forgotten, those that spend their days like ghosts on the cold city streets and beg.
Every morning I would walk from the train station to my journalism school building and walk past a countless number of them shivering. Rain, hail, or snow they would be there.
As the days crept ever closer to Christmas I decided I had to experience just what it is like to be homeless at Christmas time – so I did just that, for one night, and wrote an article about my experiences for my student paper Mancunian Matters.
This is what it said:
There are no pillows on Whitworth Street. No soft linen sheets. No memory foam mattresses. No warmth. No maternal arms to reach out and cradle you as darkness begins to fall. No goodnight God bless. No toilet. No pillows. For most there lies no more than a thin sleeping bag. For others, a blanket.
They are unavoidable in Manchester – ‘they’ being the homeless. Manchester is after all, as one old vagabond put it to me late last night, ‘the capital city of tramps’. And it is true. On the short walk from Oxford Road to my office I pass many of them. Their thin carcasses lying lifeless under sleeping bags. Their skin withered and weathered. They could be dead for all I know.
I decided some time ago that I wished to write a piece about our homeless. But when an issue such as this has been so highly covered it was somewhat hard for me to find an inventive angle. However I like to think that I dwell from the same school of thought as Günter Wallraff, the German journalist who felt that to understand a certain persons situation, one must embed themselves into that situation. So just as he depicted a tramp in ’13 Undesired Reports’, I too decided to play the tramp.
So I dressed in a pair of joggers, old trainers and a battered coat from a Christmas gone by and took to the streets on this so called ‘Mad Friday’ acting as a 19-year-old with nowhere to go just a week before Christmas. Admittedly, from 8 hours on the streets with no food, no drink, no money, no phone, nothing – I would remain most oblivious to the true hardships of homelessness. However, I believe that from spending such a time on the streets I would at least have a better understanding of homelessness than most others.
The train journey was a feature in itself. A frail disabled man fell inbetween the platform and the train and ended up on the tracks and under the train. A woman screamed while others pulled his unconscious and bloodied self out between the gaps and put him into the recovery position as an ambulance was called. I stared out of the window as the train set off once more as a well dressed drunk sat next to me.
I asked if it was his Christmas do. ‘Fuckin yeah.’ he slurred. ‘I fucking love you man.’
‘Christ, it’s only 10 o’clock’, I told myself.
Some poor bastard’s ringtone went off about four rows ahead. ‘What the fuck is that shit?!’, my new found drunken acquaintance shouted pathetically loud. I ignored him and he fell gracefully into a daze.
On the adjacent row to me was another well dressed reveller. I presume it was his works do as well. He didn’t seem too pissed but I was proved wrong a matter of seconds later as he went to cough into his hand and spurted red vomit all over himself and into the fabrics of the Northern Rail trainseat beneath him.
At first I thought it was blood. ‘Shit’, I thought, as it shot out of mouth and his nose. But then the sweet and sickly smell of warm Kopparberg hit me harder than ever.
But that was nothing. Just the beginning. As the train pulled into the station I knew too well, I stepped onto the platform not as a journalist but as a tramp with nowhere to go, no money to spend, and not a friend in a world.
I didn’t know what to do or where to go. So I walked. I walked down Oxford Road and Hulme Street. Cambridge Street and Whitworth Street.
I walked for what felt like forever as the streets filled with a circus of ages. Rich well dressed types, students, families, all as my fellow tramps sat silently in doorways. It was loud and vibrant. A multicultural hub of hedonism. I walked until my feet hurt and sweat began to run down my back. Already I was tired. I didn’t yet feel comfortable sitting down in a doorway. Strange, I know, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. As my feet ached but led the way I passed a corporate fancy style do at The Midland Hotel. The upper side of the middle class stood in the doorways smoking –busy looking posh – while waiting for taxi’s to take them elsewhere.
I headed back towards the Palace to check the time.
Twenty to one. Six hours left. I was exhausted. I sat under the arch near the Thirsty Scholar as a young woman vomited outside the theatre and fell into it. Nobody did anything to help her. After twenty minutes of sitting and pondering I began to realise that I felt endangered. I don’t know why. Nobody had threatened me or done anything to hurt me, but I felt at risk. However what I found even stranger was that people were avoiding me. They were making a conscious effort to step away from me as if I was a danger. As if I would jump up and rob them. How bizarre. Although the single most disgusting thing I encountered that night was what happened next.
A blazer clad middle aged man stumbled drunk out of The Salisbury and glided towards me – fucked drunk out of his brain.
“I fucking love you mate. I love people like you.” he murmured.
“Thank you.” I replied.
He proceeded to piss against the wall next to me. I moved slightly out of the way.
“Do you know why I fuckin love you so much man?” he slurred.
“Do yer want to know?”
He took my hand in his and hugged me as a matter of seconds drifted by.
“Because you’re fucking shit.” He said. “You make me feel better about myself. You’re fucking shit. You are less than me mate. And your shit clothes and hair… prick. That’s why I love you mate. And I do love you. You’re just full of shit. Aren’t you tho?”
I wanted to knock his teeth out. Deluded white collar cunt. To think in his mind he thought he was uttering such abuse to a homeless teenager less than a week before Christmas Day. But it wasn’t my place to retaliate. I am a journalist first. I was reminded of that extract in American Psycho where Bateman slices the eyeball open of a homeless man. I chose to walk off and ended up inside McDonalds desperate for somewhere to sit.
McDonalds was interesting but I won’t linger on it for too long. It was like a fuelling station for drunks. Most of them were no trouble. Just young and happy, pissed and free. There was the occasional of queue jumping but it was all sorted pretty quickly by the giant of a manager who I noticed was often called ‘The Ghanaian’. He seemed like a nice man. He often looked at me, knowing I hadn’t bought any food and was sitting in a seat that could be sat in by a paying customer. But he just smiled.
All in all I managed to waste about an hour in McDonalds before I headed back out.
I headed towards Deansgate Locks as the drunkards left their clubs for food. It was somewhat eerie. I was sober in a world of drunks. There was an aura of violence in the air. A lot of shouting and arguing and pushing brought on by that bravado alcohol will forever bring about.
I kept walking but I was thoroughly shattered. I walked past Manchester Central but nobody was about. I walked to the Arndale but the streets were quiet. As I got back towards Oxford Road Station I noticed an old homeless man. He had a thin white wirey beard. It was extraordinarily white. He looked sober too but his mind was far away. Lost in a distant memory where everything was okay. I was cold but he wasn’t shivering.
“Sorry mate, do you mind if I sit with you awhile? I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“My dad kicked me out this morning… We had a bit of an argument over nothing and I told him to fuck off. So now I’m stuck.”
“Anyway what’s your name?”, I asked.
“How long have you been out here.”
“I don’t know anymore. Well over a year. I think. You lose track after awhile.”
We sat in silence for a short while – both gazing into the nothingness ahead.
“I, I used to own my own business you know. It was nothing much but things were okay. A bit of money trouble here and there but nothing out of the ordinary. Then we went bang. Bankrupt. Lost it all. Wife left me, took the kids. I started drinking. Wasted all my money. But I’m straight now. Just… fucked… Fucked in the capital city of tramps.”
“What about your family? Do you still see them at all?”
“Nah. I told them all where to go… I was a bit like you telling your da to fuck off.”
I just nodded.
After a couple of minutes had passed he told me he was heading off soon if I wanted to come.
“Where to?” I asked.
“Camp…The jungle.” He laughed.
“Yeah I’ll come.”
We walked to the so called ‘jungle’ as I began to wonder what I was about to see.
When we got there it was not the metropolis of tramps I had expected. Just a thin tent and a few sleeping bags not too far from The Hilton. The juxtaposition. There were two guys in the tent. One was out of it – asleep, and the other was sitting up playing loud rhythmic drum and bass.
“Alright Chris!” the conscious one shouted. Bushy and greasy ginger hair platted down across his forehead.
“Alright lads. Is that Adam in the kip?” Chris asked.
“Yeh… Spice. He’s been gone for the past hour… Who’s this with you?” he reached out to shake my hand. I shook his.
“I’m Joe.” I told him.
“Alright Joe, I’m John, and that’s Adam. How do you know Chris?”
“I just asked if I could sit with him. I got kicked out my house today.” I said.
“Well you’re alright with us mate. Make yourself at home. I know it’s hardly a palace.”
I sat on a thin blanket. Adam, who was completely gone on spice, was lying inside the tent adjacent to me. He must’ve only been in his late twenties or so but he looked so frail and fragile and broken. His face was covered in scars and boils. It was Dickensian in all its rotten obscenity.
He frequently rolled and twitched in his sleep. I wondered what had led him to this life. I wondered what had led all of these men to this life. What collection of drawbacks had forced these men into such beastial brutality. This is their life. For me this is an experience but I know that in four hours or so I will be able to eat and drink whatever I choose and to sleep warmly and soundly in my bed. I felt terrible. I thought of Oscar Schindler in the penultimate scene of the film where he says, ‘I could have done more’.
I wish I could do more. It is hard to describe just how uncomfortable it was sitting there. The cold floor beneath me and this rotten stinking blanket on my legs.
6 days until Christmas I thought. These men should be at home celebrating with their families. Such sadness came over me.
Chris and John were talking quietly as Adam continued to twitch and turn and shake. I stayed a while listening into their conversation before I began to feel strangely weary of them. They were practically whispering just a meter or two away from me. Perhaps I was overreacting or just sleep deprived and anxious but I started to get worried. Adam sat up and stared right into my eyes but there was nothing to him. There was nothing beneath the eyes. He plummeted back to the ground and lay comatosed in sleep once more. I told Chris and John that I was going for a walk and left The Jungle for good.
Once again I was walking and I walked until I found refuge sitting outside of HOME on Oxford Road. I found it strange how it was called HOME yet at this hour of the night it was only home to the homeless. The time was just after 4am. I was starting to get very drowsy and cold. I zipped up my coat and pulled it tight but it was no good. I rubbed my legs to warm them up but that too was pointless. I hunched over and closed my eyes and fell into a daze but after less than ten minutes I awoke with my back in an aching pain. I lay down on the stone that I was sat on and gazed up at the sky. It was at this point that I started to feel most sad.
I wondered where Chris and John and Adam would go. I thought of them. I thought of them all. Of all the homeless I had passed tonight and had passed before on my escapades through the city. I wondered what would happen to them. Would they break out of the jungle, out of the homeless capital of the world. Or would they survive on minimal food and drink and spice until one day they are no longer there. Just a carcass beneath the body bag. Who would find them? Who would call the ambulance? How long would it take before a person realised they were not sleeping but were dead and rotting on the streets of this city? I don’t know the answer.
I started to feel exceptionally sad and lonely. I craved somebody to talk to. I closed my eyes but it was no use. I couldn’t sleep. I had only been here a number of hours but already I felt so empty. So cold and tired, directionless and purposeless. It is a strange sensation when you have absolutely nowhere to go. I felt on edge but somewhat careless. I began to feel that if I fell asleep and woke up to find my pockets empty then so what? I felt like a ghost.
As the police drove past multiple times not once did they stop to ask if I was okay. As the drunks, stoned, and wired strolled past me, of every age, only once did somebody say hello. Most of them avoided my eye contact. They left me unacknowledged and distant like some ghoulish burden on society. Perhaps I’m wrong but I felt as if they had acknowledged me and that they did in fact know I was homeless and in my teens but to avoid any feeling of guilt they chose to ignore me and to stroll straight past without even a glance of shared eye contact.
I stayed at my resting spot for over an hour. Until the revellers had headed home and the streets were filled only with litter pickers and my fellow tramps. I walked around for a short while deep in thought. I was glad that I had done what I had done but it had bothered me too. And as I write these words right now with a cup of tea beside me I am riddled with upset and guilt. I cannot shake the wonder that is instilled into my every thought about Chris and about John and Adam. I cannot shake it. I pray that they will get out and survive.
When I had walked for long enough I stumbled back towards Oxford Road Station and passed through the barrier. The station was nearly empty. I had to wait forty minutes for my train. I decided to play the piano. I was shivering and shaky but I managed to play. A drunk middle aged man who was bald came up behind me as I played and began to cry. He said that his uncle had died recently and that my playing had brought back a whole host of memories. I tapped him on the shoulder and he went on his way.
I sat on the bench at my platform and waited for my train to take me back to my normality, my safe haven, my reality.
Many believe that there are up to 100 homeless people sleeping rough in Manchester every night. A hundred people with nowhere to go and nothing to do. No food, no drink, no money. Nothing.
From my experiences as a tramp I can tell you that they are all ghosts. Though the few throw a pound into their cups, the many walk past as if they are not even there. Not even human. Invisible. I was a ghost. That is all I truly know. But I presume it is the same for all of them. And if nobody stopped to help me on what is supposedly the busiest night of the year. This so called Mad Friday. A homeless 19-year-old-boy. Then what is down for the most of my comrades in homelessness. The drunks and the drug addicts whom government and society have long forgot. What is down for them? Are we supposed to merely wait until they are gone. Until they are dead. Until they no longer burden our streets and our conscience.
What will be done?
This article is part of a series of stories on The Forgotten people at Christmas.
Joseph Loftus is a Gold Standard NCTJ journalist with four years experience working for international and regional press.
As well as working for UNILAD and LADbible, Joseph has worked as Liverpool Correspondent for Unsigned & Independent Magazine, as well as stints with the Liverpool Echo and Warrington Guardian.