Dear Readers, back in the 1980’s, when I was as energetic and as naive as a spring lamb, I spent three years working in Dundee at a nightshelter for single homeless people. This week I travelled back for the first time in thirty years, to visit the site of the shelter at 5 West Bell Street.
The place is deserted, though it is apparently scheduled for conversion into luxury flats. Pigeons nest on the windowsills, and weeds spring from the steps. But the words ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’ show me that I am in the right place. The old double door was useful when we were letting in the people who wanted a bed for the night – this was a ‘dry’ shelter and everyone had to be searched to make sure that the only alcohol they were bringing in was already in their stomachs. There were two, maybe three of us on shift, and some nights all of the 50 beds were full, plus up to 20 folk popped in for a bowl of soup and a roll. At ten o’clock, all those without a bed had to leave, even if there was snow on the ground. Occasionally, someone would walk down the road to the police station and break a window so that they could have a bed in a police cell for a night.
I cross the road. There is a new university building here, right where ‘The Bothy’ was – the workers from the shelter used to fall into the bar at the end of an early shift (10.30 p.m. finish). The irony that we were drinking after an evening spent looking after folk who included many alcoholics wasn’t lost on us. The ‘beer garden’ where the lads gathered to share a few cans of Strongbow cider or drink their way through a bottle of QC British Sherry is long gone. But in my mind’s eye I can still see the lads lining up as they did at 5 o’clock every night, waiting for the doors to open.
There’s Andy at the head of the queue, with his coat tied together with a piece of string around his ample middle, his feet bursting through his shoes, his legs like tree-trunks. He doesn’t take a drink, but his disreputable appearance has him barred from every shop and mall within a 5 mile radius. One of our workers took him out to buy new slippers, and only managed it by telling the shop manager that she was his grand daughter. How proud Andy was of his new footwear, though with the miles he walks, they didn’t last for long. He always has a terrible pun for us, and will bash on the counter where we sell the cigarettes at 5p each with his stick if we’re tardy.
Behind him is young Chris, shivering in his leather biker jacket and ‘A For Anarchy’ ripped teeshirt. He came straight out of care and into the shelter. He is a cheeky, handsome lad in spite of his acne, and he often runs errands for the older lads. Today, though, he is talking to Jack. Jack is wearing a smart jacket and polished shoes. He has many tales of violence done (by him) and wrongs righted (by him) and his ice-green eyes exude a manic menace. He is only in his twenties, but has been in jail twice. Some of the older ‘hardmen’ make a bee-line for Jack, as if to see if his air of single-pointed danger is real. Once, I was in the office sorting out cigarettes when I had a crunch from the kitchen. Jack had broken someone’s nose with a single punch, and was putting on his jacket to leave.
‘He was nipping ma heid*’, said Jack, reaching down to wipe a spot of blood from his shoes with a white hankerchief.
Next in the queue outside the shelter is Shug. Shug is an ex-soldier in his late 60’s, a tall, distinguished man. He probably always had a drink problem, but after he left the army and lost the structure that it gave him, he fell to pieces. He has Korsakoff Psychosis, lesions on the brain that cause failure of memory. He can be as playful as a grandfather, or he can take an instant, violent dislike to someone that he mistakes for a former enemy. His mood swings are the stuff of legend, and have him barred from the shelter on a regular basis. But every night he washes out his single shirt and hangs it up to dry, and every morning he shaves. He leaves the shelter with a steady stride, and sometimes returns on his hands and knees.
Behind Shug is Mark. Mark was also a soldier, but much more recently. He was in Northern Ireland. We talked one night, and he told me how, after being in a virtual war zone, everything else seemed dull.
‘Nothing compares to going on patrol, Vi, nothing. It was the only time I ever felt really alive’.
Mark does not have a drinking problem yet, but he has lost his wife and child because he couldn’t adjust to civilian life. He is picking up odd-jobs, but has no idea what he will do next. He shouldn’t be in the shelter, but there is nowhere else for him to go. His loneliness is palpable.
Sheila is next in line. There are only three beds for women in the shelter and Sheila is a long-term resident. She is in her seventies now, and acts as mother to many of the other men. I sometimes wonder why she’s here – she has no obvious addictions or mental health problems. I have come to the conclusion that she finds community here, and friends, and doesn’t want to be lonely in some dismal council flat, or warehoused in a home. As soon as the doors open she will be downstairs stirring the soup and helping us to make sure that everyone eats. She’ll be the first with the mop afterwards, as well.
And then there’s Peter, a tiny elfin man. He drinks once a week, and always buys chips to share with the workers.
‘Hae a chip! Hae a chip!’ he’ll chirrup, throwing the chips everywhere, before retiring to bed. Peter was rehoused in Whitfield, a housing estate 8 miles outside Dundee, where the snow drifts can reach twelve feet in the winter, where packs of discontented youths terrorise the old and vulnerable, and where it costs too much to travel into town. I’m not surprised that he’s back.
And there’s Charlie, who only visits in the winter – he is the only true ‘gentleman of the road’ that we have, with his long wild grey hair and his weather-beaten face. In the summer months he roams the lanes of Scotland with his long strides, but the snow and cold are too much for him now he’s in his seventies.
And bringing up the rear are Bobby and Wullie. Bobby walks with the tiny steps of someone with arthritis in their feet, and Wullie is in a wheelchair. Both are incontinent. Both have dementia. It is sometimes my job to give Bobby a bath, and it always goes the same way. He’s embarrassed, but tells me
‘Och, I’ll just pretend you’re my mother’.
He has his bath, and then he holds my hand and sings me a Scottish lullaby.
Then he becomes convinced that I’ve stolen his money, and he curses me out soundly and spits at me while I’m trying to get him dressed.
And then he falls asleep.
At least he doesn’t have two sticks like Wullie, who can be lethal when armed.
Working at Dundee Cyrenians taught me most of what I know of community and of honour, It taught me to look beyond appearance. I was enriched beyond measure by my years in Dundee, and the stories here are only the briefest summation of the complexity of the lives that I describe. In many ways they are not my stories to tell, but who is left to tell them, and remember?
Where are they now,the lads and lasses of 5 West Bell Street? The average age of death of a homeless person in the UK is 47. I doubt that any of the people that I’ve written about, even the youngest, are still alive in 2017. But on the streets of Dundee and London, Manchester and Cardiff, there are many people without the tiniest spot of this good earth to call their own. People huddle in doorways and clamber over fallen masonry to make a nest in derelict buildings. They lay on the grates behind the swimming baths, and put out their cardboard and sleeping bags in the doorways of shops. Changes to the benefits system, lack of housing, lack of mental health services all play their part. The people that I cared about are gone, but the problem is even worse.
The queue in front of the shelter fades out, one by one, until all that’s left is the cooing of pigeons.
*’Nippin’ ma heid’ (literally ‘nipping my head’) means to talk at someone in a boring, monomaniacal way. Frequently occurs after too much boozing.
**Names have been changed, but these were all real people.