Last night when I was walking home from the station I saw an old man shuffling across the road in front of me. Eric, of course. Now that I know his name its hard not to keep using it. So I walked up to him and said… ‘Eric?’ and he looked up at me from under his fleece hat (his eyes were barely out) and said ‘Yeaaays?’. I introduced myself and he seemed pleased to be talking to me. So. He’s old, has a grey beard, speaks the queen’s english and wears two pairs of trousers, a jersey, a shirt a jumper and a coat, a hat, big boots and carries a rucksack with a tatty old sleeping bag attached to it.
I walked back to his spot under the bridge with him and he told me about how he once climbed Mont Blanc and was very resilient and handled the cold quite well. (I knew all of this already because Pat had told me). But, he said, he was older now and he was finding it increasingly difficult to move with ease. Yesterday in the day I had called up a few places to find out whether we’d be able to take Eric to a shelter or whether someone in the council could help. I found a couple of good organisations, including Spear, a local hostel and they also told me about churches that open their doors in the winter for people to go and sleep in.
So, once I’d had a bit of chat with Eric, I asked him whether he knew about this Spear place. Of course he said he did, and that he wasn’t a ‘big fan’ of those shelters because they were full of drug pushers and drunks. He liked the idea of the church more, but wouldn’t let me drive him to one. I told him he had to look after himself, and he said he did, and that he would. I told him that it was going to get very cold, and he said ‘yes, around-3 they say, but actually it’s a bit warmer here by the river, and under the bridge’. I told him that I didn’t want to find him frozen to death in the morning, and he laughed and told me it wasn’t that cold yet, although last night it had been a bit colder than the night before. I told him he needed to take this seriously and that he was ‘no spring chicken’,and he said ‘I’m glad I’m not a spring chicken because I saw about 3 foxes last night, and they would have had me’. This made me laugh a lot, and then Pat appeared and said: ‘Right lets take you somewhere warm’. And Eric said ‘No, no, no no not tonight. Please don’t put yourself out for me’.
The thing about Eric is that he’s clearly very clever, and is choosing to live in this way to some extent. He lost contact with his family when he first became homeless. He looked sad when I asked him about it. Weirdly though, I felt very comfortable taking to him, he was very gentle and I didn’t notice anything volatile or strange about him. I know that probably sounds stupid, but I guess he just seemed a bit lost, a bit misty and nostalgic, but also strangely cheery, like he was just living, and it wasn’t big deal that he was sleeping on the streets. So perhaps he is not entirely aware of the situation he is in, or perhaps it genuinely isn’t that difficult yet. The truth is, we don’t know whether he is able to look out for himself. Physically he is not at all strong, but mentally he seemed pretty hardy.
In the end we had to compromise by getting him the hot water bottle again, and also giving him Pat’s amazingly warm arctic sleeping bag, which I forced him to take (he didn’t want it at first). The problem now is, what happens next? He left the sleeping bag and the water bottle outside the boat again this morning. Will we do this every night forever now? I don’t want him to get into trouble, and he’s old so at some point he needs to get proper housing. In the meantime, I guess we do this until he’s ready to go to a shelter…. Crumbs.