The number of homeless people in Swansea is on the rise
It’s an all too common sight in Swansea – as in any city – these days. Some unfortunate soul crumpled in a doorway amidst the dregs of a troubled life, waiting to catch your gaze, their face a study of despair, almost halfheartedly pleading for any spare change.
I walk on, barely acknowledging the guy’s existence, but there was something about his desperate demeanour that followed me into the coffee shop and caused me to double my order.
This time I stop and hand him the cardboard cup and a clutch of sachets of sugar.
As he looks up, a fog of recognition seeps into my mind. It’s a mutual recognition.
“You were in school with me,” he says.
John – he was happy to share his story but did not want his full identity revealed – has been homeless for four months.
The 51-year-old father of four grew up in the same Swansea Valley village as me and attended the same comprehensive school but after that our paths diverged.
While he admits he was “never any good at school” and left at the first opportunity he worked hard all his life until an industrial accident rendered him disabled.
He says: “I was working in a chemical firm but had an accident; I was spraying with methylated spirits and it collapsed my lungs basically.
“I was very bad and off sick for three years but went back to work for 10 years. I did all right but I was ill again then divorced.”
He talks slowly in a monotone voice long since bereft of emotion: “We married in 1986, I met her when I was 16, and we had a son and a daughter together. But then we split up.
“I just went to pieces really.”
Although John’s health was on the wane he met someone else at the aged of 43 and started a second family but he then faced another major heartbreak.
He says: “We had two children, girls aged 4 and 6.”
But he added: “I’m on the streets because she threw me out basically.
“I came to High Street with a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and that was it.
“It was terrible. I slept in a doorway that night.
“That was at the end of May and I have been homeless ever since.”
Helping hand: Geraint chats as John looks for a another doorway to seetle in
I look at his meagre possessions; a cheap sleeping bag and a carrier of dirty clothes.
We then recall some other boys from our year in school, the most famous, the rugby star Robert Jones
He says: “I had two caps fly fishing for Wales, I had a millennium cap fishing in 2000 and I fished for my country again in 2003.
“I lost all my fishing gear when my house was robbed several years ago, along with £6,000 worth of stuff, all that I ever saved in my life.
“It’s embarrassing. I worked all my life and had a lovely house but it’s gone. It’s all gone.
“It’s horrible when someone I know sees me like this; it’s awful.
“I saw one of my cousins last month; I hadn’t seen him for about four years. He was on his way to the casino. He gave me a tenner and said, ‘Go and have breakfast in the morning’.
“I felt humiliated.”
Looking at John it’s easy to imagine him as a father, with his girls sat on his knee, and although he wears the dirt of the street and is shrouded by a sense of hopelessness, he has not degenerated into an addict.
He says: “I’m offered drugs all the time; it’s all there is, drugs everywhere.
“Some people say they take them to block things out but I wont block nothing out. Drugs are not for me.
“I didn’t even start drinking until I was 28 and I haven’t drunk for years.
“You see people coming all the time and they just give you a drink or whatever. I just give it back to them.
“They think that everybody on the street drinks alcohol or does drugs but they don’t.
“There are a few of us out there but not many.”
Old friends: Geraint Thomas meeting a homeless man who went to the same school
John hasn’t even got a family to turn to.
He says: “I lost both my parents to cancer, my mother when she was quite young and my father a bit later, but that’s life.
“I do have four brothers and two sisters but I don’t bother with them.
“I chose my partner and they didn’t get on and that was it.”
As for his grown up children, aged 29 and 30, he says: “I see my boy but I don’t see my daughter.
“I won’t go to my son for help because they are struggling themselves. He’s a good lad and has five kids himself, so he can’t help me out.”
He is particularly reluctant to bother strangers for help.
He says: “I won’t beg off nobody, I just sit there.
“Sometimes people give me things but I don’t beg at all.”
Although he is entitled to a disability benefit, being homeless has placed him in a catch 22 situation.
He says: “Without an address and a bank account, I can’t get my money and I can’t open a bank account because I don’t have any details. I only have an expired passport.
“I’m supposed to be paid soon but unless I have a bank account then I’m not going to get it.
“The last time I put it into a mate’s account it disappeared.”
Despite avoiding drugs and alcohol, John does not look well.
He says: “I am genuinely disabled, I’m waiting for a hernia operation and I’m a chronic industrial asthma sufferer, as well as a diabetic, what more do you want?
“I’m suffering from my nerves and I’m on anti-depressants; I’m on more than 20 tablets a day.
“I get more when I run out from the chemist on High Street, they have been good to me.
“It’s hard living on the streets; I won’t lie. It’s not nice.
“Seriously. I have black outs from time to time; the last was on Saturday. I can’t breathe properly. I can breathe in but not out and I black out.”
People drinking in the newly reopened Kings lane off High street Swansea
And what is not so obvious is the damaging effect living on the streets has on the mind.
He says: “It’s hard work for people living on the streets,
“I understand that a lot of them are young but they are going the wrong way and there’s nobody out there to help them.
“You do get depressed, you do get down, I’m always depressed. I’m missing my children.
“There’s nothing else to miss; I miss my children.
“I only have a photograph of my two little girls on my phone. It’s the only thing I’ve got.
“I spend my days just walking about, not far, just a hundred yards or so, and then sitting down. Just trying to occupy the mind a bit. There’s nothing to do. You can’t even wash your clothes.
“The police tried to move me on for the first time on Saturday night. I thought they were a bit out of order to be honest with you.
“They woke me up and I told them that I was ill but they didn’t give a monkey’s.”
And then there is the threat of violence.
He says: “Most of the other homeless people on High Street are tidy to me but I did have my teeth kicked in four weeks ago.
“I was sleeping and someone just kicked me and pinched my coat. There were three of them.
“But there you are; that’s what happens in life.
“A friend of mine had much worse. Some guys gave him a good kicking and hit him with a piece of wood when he was sleeping in a doorway and stole all his clothes. He was really beaten up.”
John has been speaking to various people about getting somewhere to live but so far has only been offered a ground floor room on Llanelli ’s Station Road.
He says: “I don’t want to go there but I’m going to have to; otherwise I’m going to end up dead somewhere.
“As long as I have a place to live, my girls can come and see me. I just want a flat, somewhere clean and tidy, where my girls can come and visit me. I want to live properly. “
Homelessness is a big issue in Swansea
I’m recalling the salient phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ when, as if reading my mind, he adds: “What’s happened to me can happen to anyone; anyone at all.
“I never thought, as little boy, that my life would end up like this.
“I’ve worked hard for most of my life but there is b****r all left now.
“I don’t think leaving school with nothing matters, I’ve worked hard and had good jobs and earned good money.
“It could happen to anyone.
“I thought I was safe being married all those years but you are never safe, you don’t know what’s around the corner.”