“HERE we go again,” I thought. “This is typical.”
For a much-loved newspaper columnist such as myself, there is nothing worse than enduring an experience which would make an ideal column were it not for the fact that you had already done it.
In this case, it was a fire evacuation. I had just arrived in work when the fire alarm went off on a non-drill day. Long-time readers of this column, of which there are four, can switch off for a few paragraphs. You have basically already read this bit.
My colleagues and I grabbed our coats – in direct contravention of fire evacuation procedures which, in our defence, had not taken into account snow in March – and headed for the emergency exit corridor.
But, as we arrived, keener fugitives from the licking flames, who had not bothered with their coats because they were young and foolish, were pouring back from the emergency corridor. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“We can’t get out that way. They’ve padlocked the fire door.”
A change swept over me, transforming me from the mild-mannered, disappointed, and disappointing man who normally presents himself to the world into something greater.
“We’ll see about that!” I said, and I strode into the corridor, Medium Coat swirling behind me heroically. The fire door was indeed padlocked, as is correct, but it was connected to a glass tube. I had been here before, with fewer witnesses. I had only to break the seal by smashing the glass tube with the hammer attached nearby, and the door would open.
I pushed it open and led the terrified masses into another corridor, this time pitch-black. “Hug the wall,” I said, “and follow me.” Using the light from the screen on my phone I found my way to the end of the corridor, where the light switch and exit door were situated.
I brought light to the corridor and placed my hands on the door. “This is typical,” I thought. “If I hadn’t done all this before, it would definitely make a column, AND one which would make me look good for a change. Ah, well… I suppose I should continue to save these people’s lives.” And, triumphantly, I flung open the door to the outside world…
And I squashed against the wall the man who was on the other side of that door, and who was sheltering from the snow.
That is where I would normally finish my column, except for one thing. The reason the man was sheltering behind the door was because he was homeless. And that is increasingly typical too.
Over the past few years the number of people sleeping rough on the journey I take from bus stop to office has grown markedly. Actual people living in the year 2016 find themselves forced to live on the streets, on nights when it is cold enough to snow, dependent for food on the charity of passers-by.
The government’s own figures – which are dependent on rough sleepers actually being seen by members of the public and so underestimate the problem – show the numbers across the UK have more than doubled since 2010.
The trouble is solving this homelessness problem costs money, and it appears the government would prefer that we pay for it from the spare coppers in our pocket.
I give what I can, within reason – a quid here or there, some shrapnel spoiling the line of my suit trousers – and it makes me feel virtuous. You might feel the same way. You might even feel heroic.
It is not good enough.
We have become accustomed in this country to think that we can have things of value for nothing. We do not pay for music, we do not pay for news, we complain about the BBC licence fee.
And then we vote for governments which pander to the idea that we can have decent public services for nothing, and complain when it turns out we can’t.
So the only way to get rough sleepers off our streets is through decent social services and decent social housing, and we have to pay for that through taxation, not charity.
It’s how we emptied the streets of rough sleepers after the Thatcher years. It is not glamorous – it does not even sound virtuous – but it is the effective option.
Do that and you can leave the heroism to me and Medium Coat.