As Coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, it is increasing social injustices and bringing inequalities to the forefront. In this fifth edition, documentary photographer David Gilbert Wright shares the touching photo story of Paul, a homeless man who he became friends with during the current pandemic. This photo story highlights the impact of years of austerity on the most poor and exposes the further impact of the outbreak on them.
The story of Paul speaks of the many which were already at the receiving end of funding cuts and support and they now in a lot worse conditions.
These are issues we need to see, reflect upon and action.
Homeless and Locked Down
by David Gilbert Wright
It was springtime, and the weather was beautiful. The skies had been clear for several weeks and the sun had been warming up the earth. But this was no normal spring. England was in the grips of an unknown pandemic and the Government had ordered a lockdown. Everyone but a few, were staying home. Buses and trains were empty, roads were empty and we were all trying to adapt to a new way of living. Rules about when you can go out and for what were in place. The population were being ‘frightened’ into believing that hundreds and thousands would catch this new virus and many would die. I was out walking the dog in nearby woods when I came across a tent pitched deep in a thicket, out of sight. I was intrigued. It took several more days before I plucked up the courage to investigate. That was when I met Paul. He was homeless and living in these woods. He was locked down too! Over the next 3-4 months I got to know Paul and he is the subject of this story.
Paul is 52 years old. He had a brother who died in his forties and a sister. He told me that his Mum left home when he was 15 years old. That was the start of things. “I left home and came to London. London was a terrible place back then and being homeless was very dangerous. I was sleeping rough when some one picked me up and took me along to a kind of hostel. You had to ‘book’ a night and then get out in the morning. I think they felt sorry for me and gave me a job sweeping and cleaning the rooms. That saved me. I lived in a house in Thurrock at some point and had a sort of job. I had to go sick and so I lost that job and couldn’t pay the rent so they evicted me. I have been on the move ever since. I don’t like towns. They are too scary. I decided to get a tent and live out in the country somewhere so here I am”. He got up and started to make a little fire. “Now it is warming up, the midges are starting to get on my nerves so I light a fire and the smoke keeps them away” he said laughing.
Paul often walked up to the town. He had broken his hip some time in the recent past and suffered from terrible sciatica. “I have to take pain-killers” he told me, “so I come up to the chemist every week or two to get me repeat prescription. Trouble is, people try to mug me and take my drugs”. We sat for a while in the warm sun and then this woman came along. Her name was Lizzie. She told me that she was what some call a ‘sofa-surfer’. “That’s someone who is homeless and manages to get a place to sleep in someone’s house.” She was in her 50s and had been homeless since the breakdown of her marriage. She was very guarded but alluded to being badly abused and beaten by her partner until she couldn’t stand it anymore and managed to escape. She had several grown-up children and managed to see them occasionally but she also was living a hard life. She told me how difficult it was in the winter. ‘We both try to find something a bit more permanent if we can because you can freeze at nights’ Paul told me.
We were talking in his encampment in the woods one day and he started to tell me about his Faith. It surprised me somewhat. He rummaged around in his tent, beer can in one hand and pulled out a book. It was the Pilgrim’s Progress by Chaucer. I see myself as a kind of pilgrim, always on the move. I am like the guy in the book, in search of something. It is something I can identify with. He rummaged a bit more and pulled out another book. “This is my Bible”. He said “I pray everyday. I try to speak to God. I think He loves me despite my faults. He loves me unconditionally. He does not expect me to change. I feel he forgives me for all the stuff I have done. He is my rock. Later that morning, we were walking up to the town together and he started reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
I asked Paul what he did for food. He told me that he visited a food bank in Brentwood. He told me where it was and I realised that it must take him nearly an hour to walk to it because he was very slow, due to his arthritis and needing a crutch to help. “They are very good and deliver stuff to me sometimes”. The food bank only opens twice a week between 10 and 12 midday. Paul was not usually an early riser. I often got to his tent mid-morning to find him sound asleep. “Jem looks after me. He will always open up if he is around”. So one afternoon we set off on the walk to the Food Bank. We talked about all kinds of things as we walked. Steve was the priest. He found a whole lot of food and Paul was so pleased with the large tin of assorted biscuits, like you get at Christmas. It was then that I realised first-hand how important these food banks are to people like Paul.
“I used to have another guitar but when I stayed a night with this woman she stole it and sold it for 5. Probably spent the money on drugs. Someone gave me another one then a bloke grabbed it off of me. I chased and tracked him down to this shed and got it back. Thing is, the E string was broken, that’s why I haven’t managed to replace it yet. I do a bit of busking to earn a few bob. I like Reggae and Punk and usually do a bit of both or improvise”. He started strumming something with a reggae beat and then sun along. He was making the words up and they were about him and his God or ‘Jah’ as he liked to call Him. On another occasion, we were walking past a charity shop and he saw a violin in the window. He went in and persuaded the assistant to let him try it out. Clearly, Paul was musical. When he came out, I asked what he thought of the violin. “The strings on the bow were all frayed so it was not a good bargain”.
“Some guys came to my camp one night and tried to rob me. It is very dark here in the night and they didn’t have lights. I am pretty good in the dark because I know where everything is. I managed to roll away into the undergrowth and just hide. They couldn’t find me and got very angry. I heard them say something and then heard a ripping sound. Once they had gone I discovered they had ripped me tent. This isn’t the first time” he said pulling out a roll of Gaffer Tape and starting to repair the ripped canvas. Camping out in the woods his not such a halcyon existence!
As the days wore on, I noticed Paul’s demeanor change. He didn’t seem so happy-go-lucky. At one point in June he disappeared for a couple of weeks. He had a phone but often as not, he had no credit or it the battery was flat. Out of the blue, I got a call from him. He told me he had been in hospital. I asked what was up and he said “I have been feeling very low and things got to much and I tried to top me self”. He told me he was being transferred to another hospital and hoped to be out soon. I went by his camp each day to check on things and one day I found him asleep in his tent. He was out of food so I went with him to the food bank. Jem was just leaving but when Paul told him about his illness, he agreed to open up and give him some supplies. Jem went off inside and we sat out in the sun. Paul was sitting very quietly waiting. I couldn’t help seeing the picture in front of me. Here was someone who really needed to talk.
While Paul was in hospital his tent got vandalized again. “Someone slashed it again” he said. I told him I had seen a bunch of teenage kids riding around his camp. “All me stuff got soaked cos the rain came through the whole” he lamented. Paul looked like a shadow of the man I had first met. As we sat quietly, he hung his head and said “I’m not happy, I don’t like living like this. People think I’m happy but I’m not.” I could see he had tears in his eyes. He looked up to the sky and shouted “This is not Heaven!” It was then that I realised that he yearned for the safety and security of a home and a family that many of us take for granted.
I saw Paul several more times then he disappeared and I never saw him again. I don’t know what came of him. All I do know is that when I went back to his camp one evening, I found that his tent had been pulled down, poles broken, bedding scattered around and his clothes flung into the surrounding bushes. Then I spotted his guitar or what was left of it. It was completely smashed up and the pieces were strewn around near what used to be his campfire. But that wasn’t the thing that really got me! As I looked around I noticed something white under a bush amidst the leaf mold of the forest. I went closer and realised I was looking at the discarded copy of his Bible. It was open at the penultimate chapter of the New Testament. It is about Jude, who was also a traveler. He went from city to city spreading the gospel. His name was Judas but has become shortened. He was a living example of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, in contrast to Judas Iscariot who betrayed Him. The picture of the Bible, its pages dirty, crumpled and tattered is a poignant ending to this story about someone who was also ‘discarded’ and homeless during the Lockdown.
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Photo editor: Cinzia D’Ambrosi