Kevin Carson, 27 years old, was a diabetic and on-again, off-again junkie who sometimes carried a syringe behind his ear and occasionally claimed to have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.He wore a woolen cap, fingerless gloves and spent his days huddled up on a plastic bread crate in the corner of a foot bridge selling the Big Issue, a newspaper sold by more than 2,000 homeless or ex-homeless vendors for 35 pence (about 50 cents) profit per copy. All day long he repeated the phrase,"Buy the Big Issue the homeless,"in a tone so affectedly earnest, so filled with contempt, irony, amusement and pathos that his pitch seemed almost camp, a parody of his role as a homeless character.

Actually Kevin wasn't homeless when I met him, but he had "slept rough" (outdoors) in London for five years and then spent a year in jail on murder charges, accused of fatally injecting a fellow rough sleeper with drugs (Kevin blamed the crime on a homeless woman known as "The Fixer" who had a habit of sticking both herself and others with everything from hypodermic needles to safety pins). After the charges were dropped he came through the Simon Community homeless shelter where I was living and working as a volunteer. When I met him he had been living in a council flat for about four months.

He still came to Simon once a week to pull night duty and steal small household supplies. He carried around a tin filled with tobacco and chunks of hash which he would usually smoke before his shift. He hated Simon, mocked the idea of charity and would spend his nights writing critical commentary in the shelter's log book, slagging off the "caring sharing Simons." He had alienated or intimidated most of the Simon workers and was contemptuous of those who used the shelter.

Yet he kept coming back. At 3 a.m. he'd say for the hundredth time, "Brown [heroin], mate .. .I'm bored, mate," telling me he wanted to shoot up again. I'd say stick to the hash and we'd talk and talk to keep him distracted. It was a constant effort to keep him occupied, to keep him from

Charlie and ever-present can of glue

ridiculing your efforts or your concern. He was too smart for the clichés, too sensitive to solicit help from an indifferent system, and too proud to become just another homeless man, so he opted for being a bastard.

I'd tolerate his sarcasm, his steady ironic patter, his playing with my head and his initial hatred of yet another volunteer who was supposed to be able to help him. He gave me countless opportunities to not like him, ordering me to make him cup after cup of tea, demanding more and more of me until I refused and then he'd say, "I thought you're supposed to care about the homeless, mate," his "mate" sounding very much like an epithet.

When another resident locked himself in the Simon bathroom for a long period of time, Kevin suddenly became the responsible, concerned citizen, asking what I was going to do: "He might be dying in there of an overdose." But if I banged on the door (I did), then I was the oppressive system and Kevin would be the first to call me on it. Kevin himself did nothing. He'd sit back and watch you fail.

At one point, much later in our relationship, I asked about taking photos of him for this article. "So what, you want a picture of me banging [shooting] up?" he asked, playing the appeal of a dramatic photo against the ethics of me condoning his heroin use. And he was right.

Click to Continue