People look at me when I’ve got my phone out, and they’re like, how’ve you got one of those? And I say ‘I’m homeless, not dead’.
George had the look of a deer that had braved the headlights, escaped to safety, and turned to a companion, eye-bulge on the wain, appreciative of how close to the void they’d both been. Equal parts methodical and impressionable, endearing and disconcerting, George’s commitment to carry on despite crushing circumstances was nothing but appealing. The first time we met him, Joss disappeared for a second and reappeared with a tenner. “For you,” he said, brushing away protests from the two of us. George because he seemed unsure about the sincerity of the gesture – something I would learn he had grappled with before – and me because of the line we’d attempted to draw in the sand about support, help and care. “I just thought to myself, what’s 10 pounds to me?” Joss said, shrugging, and I found myself agreeing, not least because I cared deeply about a man we had met for so brief a period.
Talking about his family, George’s flow – some what stunted to begin with – slowed down further as he searched for the right words to explain his older son’s fragile health. After offering an explanation, he looked up at me cautiously. Perhaps to see if I’d make fun, perhaps to see if I’d understood properly. I was touched by the vulnerability of it all.
We met George on a doorstep near the Grand Arcade – round the corner from Fal’s pitch. Joss and I were walking back after having a somewhat barbed conversation with Jake and Stella, feeling slightly concerned that our ease with the homeless services in Cambridge were creating a barrier in our relationships with people that had explicitly rejected them. A voice to our left asked for change, to which we apologised for being without any. For whatever reason, we glanced back again at the man in a blue sleeping bag, closely shaven and guarded, and we stopped to offer the small amount of food we had in our bags. I asked if he’d ever told his story to anyone before. He said that he hadn’t, or he had, but it was when he was a teenager and it was for a magazine and it was quick and insubstantial. We asked why he was on the streets, and why he needed money, and we learned that he’d lost his accommodation a few days earlier and was on the waiting list for Jimmys. George told us that the money was to grab the bus to Huntingdon and see his 6 year old son. Joss got the tenner, we left him to think on the thought of talking to us, and parted ways for the evening.
The next time we dropped by we went to a confusing little shop / cafe further up the road, just opposite the heady decadence of Downing College. George tucked into a chicken korma and a tea with far too much sugar – the lid had comically fallen off mid-pour – and carried on from where we’d left off the previous week.
George was born in London. At 7, his parents split up, and he was sent to live with his mother’s sister and her husband in St Neots: “Mum wrote a letter to me aunty saying she didn’t want me.” He didn’t really know them. At 11, they broke up too, and George was sat down in the kitchen and asked what he wanted to do. He chose his aunt, moved in with her, then watched from a distance as his uncle, who had been tasked with filling the role of a father figure, became engaged to his mother and stepped up more formally into the ‘stepfather’ position. Unsurprisingly, the whole timeline of events was coupled with a lack of support for and appreciation of George, who eventually felt pent up and isolated enough to grab a backpack and head for London at the tender age of 14 – with no family, no school, no home expecting him.
The more conversations I have with people on the streets, or people who’ve had troubles in their lives, the more I learn that your relationship with your parents is key. To put it bluntly, if you have a fucked up start to your life, and the people that are supposed to care for you fuck you up, you’re more than likely to have a fucked up middle part too. From Tommy, longing to be clean so that he could meet his estranged family like an equal; to Allan, hoping beyond hope to be able to return to Australia; to George, cast aside by a volatile, selfish and unsupportive family, searching for love and acceptance from any group of people that would give it to him; it all seems to come down to the family.
“My stepfather had struggles with my aunty…he weren’t the bloke that I thought he was. Weren’t the dad that I thought he was.” Pause. “That’s one of the reasons why I felt alone and isolated.”
“I weren’t sleeping at all. I’d wait until the early hours then I’d try and get some kip. I wasn’t suicidal or anything. I was… just searching for something, I guess.”
I asked George what happened on his first day on the streets.
“I went and sat down near Kings Cross. People saw me there and thought ‘I’ll give a bit of money to a kid’. I think the police came and found me and asked what was going on. They tried to contact my parents but I gave them a dodgy number, you know, so they wouldn’t be able to.”
He was taken to went to a day centre and stayed there whilst he got his bearings. “After a few days I think I rang from there and spoke to my parents. My mum was, you know, hysterical, and my stepdad was just like ‘come back if you want to’. He told me I wasn’t in trouble.”
The story became a bit unclear here, but it seemed as if George went back for a couple of months, then left again to live in and out of the shelter systems in London. There was a fair amount of drinking involved: George told me that he’d think nothing of downing a “10 pack of super”, or nicking a bottle of vodka from Sainsburys. At some point around his 16th birthday, after having had the time to establish himself as a regular on the streets, George came across the ‘Jesus Army’. He said that he’d met them whilst they were evangelising and they’d come up to him and asked if he wanted some food and needed some help. George – a boy, a teenager, a man accustomed to surviving – seemed to me like the kind of person that would have shut them down. But the loving embrace of community won out, and he agreed to spend time with them.
They had accommodation and food. “It was just a means to an end really. But then I started believing. Felt, you know, like…it felt good. I felt I belonged somewhere. By that time I’d finished being in care, and I was basically on my own in a place, that, you know, I’d been for a couple of years.”
He spent a large chunk of the rest of his life with the Jesus Army. George celebrated his 18th, 19th, 20th birthdays with them. “Some of them were friends for life, you know? I still see them 25 years later. Some are still there. Some have died. But I go to London for the big events and that.” They gave him structure, a job and a sense of purpose. George worked on a farm and in various warehouse roles with them over the space of 10 years. He’d leave every so often, but there was an edge to his life outside of JA that wasn’t conducive to living alone. It was partly the drink, partly the isolation.
We were chatting about nothing for a bit when George, in his typical throwaway way of speaking, told me about “a bad accident” that happened when he was walking back from a night of evangelising.
“I was hit by a drunk driver – went 30 foot in the air. Landed on the roof.”
“Of the car?”
He chuckled, incredulously. “Yeah. Thought I was a goner. I had a hole in my bowel.” He fingered his torso absent-mindedly. “I was meant to be having a colostomy bag but they sorted it all out.”
“Yeah. I was in hospital for a month and a half. I lost 4 stone. I think I went down to about 5 stone.”
George is about 6 foot 3. Five stone was by no means a healthy weight for the guy.
“My mum and my stepdad didn’t come. I wasn’t speaking to them then. They – Jesus Army – came and saw me every day. This woman stayed at my bedside..she was like a mum figure. Really took me under her wing. I think she was like 30-odd then. Early 40s.”
I was impressed by the caring side of the Jesus Army. It wasn’t an organisation that I’d heard of before, and for whatever reason, I’ve resisted researching them. As if they’re locked into an image in my head of goodness that I’m worried will subside if I find that they’re excessively homophobic or fundamentalist. And I’m skirting around their label as an ‘army’. I asked George to describe one of his happiest memories with the JA, and, predictably, he turned towards a time of community:
“I remember they bought the house next door. People were moving in and stuff. It was expanding. I remember being involved with knocking a wall down to make a door into the next house. Sledgehammer, smashing the wall…it felt good. I remember it now, all the different songs we used to sing as well… and I remember when I came home from my operation. It was a few days before my 21st. ‘Cause I didn’t have much of an 18th, I was planning on going out and getting plastered for my 21st, but it didn’t happen. I was incapacitated. But I was living with Jesus Army, and they were all running around after me – bought me a great big cake…”
“I felt happy in myself with Jesus Army. Had to pinch myself to think ‘Is this real?’”
“I’d sleep on the streets to save a bit of money, then see my son during the day and spend my money on him.”
George’s life then snaked through relationships, cities, jobs – including time running a crafts stall in Spitalfields market, making mosaic mirrors and living ‘the high life’ with his girlfriend’s family – and an ill-fated period with his estranged alcoholic father in Godmanchester. By all accounts, his time in London was a good one. He lived in a flat by the Thames, and spent a few years honing a craft. “I done, like, hundreds of mosaics. Did mirrors, a top of a table. Sometimes I’d do the pots as well. Like my girlfriend would make them and I’d put them in the kiln and mosaic-em up.”
But things didn’t work out. As with all of these stories, at some point something didn’t work out.
I’ve toyed with whether or not to mention this, but I think that on the theme of exploitation and vulnerability, it makes sense to mention it. After leaving London, George lived with a different girlfriend in the suburbs of Huntingdon. After giving birth, she couldn’t afford a paternity test – which may or may not have been pretext – and applied to have the test on Jeremy Kyle’s show. Within a couple of days, George and his girlfriend were on the train up to Manchester, staying in separate hotels and waiting to be ferried across to Granada studios to be filmed. George spoke fondly of the experience and of how quickly it all came about, and, particularly, of his girlfriend bearing the brunt of the worst excesses of Kyle’s on screen personality.
But knowing what I know about George’s life – troubled time with drink, strained relationships with his family and girlfriends, struggles to throw off the excesses of isolation – it’s hard to be anything other than saddened by the whole process. Unsurprisingly, the show and the paternity test didn’t help to repair the relationship. Whatever his personal thoughts about the show, there’s no way anyone watching would – or could – have empathised properly. I’m sure that the two of them would’ve been presented as people simply unable to control themselves properly. It’s the preying on people lusting after the glamour of bumping into a Coronation Street actor, then blatantly offering them up as moral scapegoats that I can’t abide. In my own small way, I hope that this more rounded portrait of George goes some way to settling that score.
His girlfriend ended up leaving and moving with their son to Cumbria for 6 months, forcing George to save up and use his weekly wage on an 8 hour bus trip to the area. He’d then save money by sleeping on the streets and using the money he had on on his son. “If he needed nappies or anything.” The relationship eventually became more corrosive and George was away. Away from his son, away from his house, and away from a regular income. The only option was to return to Cambridge, given his local connections (necessary to get into the shelter system) and to try and find employment and accommodation somewhere. The streets were the only staple to welcome him “By then, I’d lived the high life, done the JA stuff, and thought bloody hell – I’m back here again”
And that’s where he was when we met him. He’d bounced through life, ending up waiting near a bus stop and asking for enough money to get the bus to see his son, and waiting for Jimmy’s night shelter to free up enough space so that he could have a fixed address and start claiming housing benefit. He recognised the change in his circumstances, but he wasn’t too proud to talk about going to the shelter: “It would give me support”. He’d refused their help in the past, even though he needed it, and now he recognised how useful it could be for him.
George finished his second (equally sugary) tea, and we pulled back. We walked back to the bus stop and I was left to reflect on the whole story. I felt for a guy that hadn’t really ever expected much, and wasn’t too proud to work with what he had. Here was a man that said yes as often as possible and let himself be carried along by the sweet embrace of time. Yes, the streets were his only option, but it felt as if this was just another step on his rich and varied ladder. I don’t think he’ll stay here, but I can’t say what his next move will be. I don’t think he really knows either.