Judging a Book by Its Cover

In the early 80s, my brother was a punk. At well over six feet, he was a startling vision in leather, chains and safety pins, with an 18” multicoloured Mohican plume arcing from the top of his otherwise shaven head. All manner of people felt obliged to pass comment on his appearance.

From a cluster of down and outs on Euston station, one filthy old tramp staggered to his feet, and in a tone of great disgust, pointed at my brother, and yelled, “Look at the state of you!                                                        …I’m ashamed to call you my son!”

How did my dad come to be sleeping rough? [picture shown of 2-year old dad] How did that cherished little boy end up living on the streets?

We see them everywhere, this underclass, huddled in doorways, clutching their filthy rags, with their sad-eyed dogs and begging bowls. Why don’t they get off their butts and find a job, get a decent life?

The simple answer is because they can’t. Their homelessness is just a symptom of more fundamental underlying problems: usually mental illness, alcoholism or drug abuse.

You think this can’t happen to you? Neither did he. And if it can happen to him, it can happen to me. And if can happen to me, it can happen to you.

You cannot dismiss these people as lazy, feckless, stupid. They are damaged, alone, and terribly vulnerable.

Oh, who cares? The homeless don’t grow out of the ground. Most of them have families, surely.

Let me tell you about my dad. He was the adored son of loving parents. A beautiful child who grew into a handsome, quick-witted and clever young man. He had a wife who loved him and three lovely children. After serving in the REME for ten years, he became an electronics engineer. My dad was a pioneer of the ultrasound technology that allowed Adrian (one of our Toastmasters, who has just had a baby) to hear his unborn baby’s heartbeat. My dad was also a schizophrenic and an alcoholic. He was violent and manipulative; and our lives were hell.

I saw him once from a taxi window; he was picking cigarette ends out of the gutter. I didn’t stop. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But my dad shared a characteristic common among many, if not most of the street people: they can be very hard to love.

So who does care about these unloved and unlovely people?

St Mungo’s cares. St Mungo’s is one of several charities helping the homeless in London. Each night, over 1,000 homeless souls sleep under a St Mungo’s roof, in accommodation ranging from hostels to high-support houses. St Mungo’s has specialist teams ensuring their residents are given the chance to improve their lives.

St Mungo’s found my dad. With their help, my dad stabilised. He went to live in sheltered housing, he received proper medication and found a new independence. He bought a kitten, Schmoo, and he doted on her to the end of his brief days.

He died far too young, not from the illnesses that put him on the street, but from the lung disease he developed from living rough. Rough sleepers in his age group have a death rate 25 times greater than the general population.

But, unless you have the dubious honour of being related to the guy with the begging bowl, how do you differentiate between the genuinely homeless and the apocryphal beggar who drives home in his Mercedes after a hard-days scrounging? Offer them food, offer them blankets and give your money to St Mungo’s, because St Mungo’s cares when, for whatever reason, we can’t.

Comments

Sadly, I seem to have lost my comments for this speech, so I can't publish them here. This was probably the most difficult speech I've given, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Uncomfortable is probably the best description.

I hadn't intended telling my mum I was giving this speech, but I did so a couple of weeks beforehand. She liked it and was keen that I should do so, which surprised me enormously. For obvious reasons, we're not a very touchy-feely family and my dad isn't often a topic of discussion. A cathartic speech? In retrospect, I don't think so.