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Dave has a daily routine: he wakes around 7 a.m. before the post office opens for business, stashes his blankets, straps his duffel bag on his back and goes to the London Embankment Christian Mission (known informally as Webber Street) a day center where you have to listen to 30 minutes of preaching before each meal.

Dave stores his bag there along with the scores of others piled up on the side of the room and then goes to another day center, has a shower, gives in his clothes to wash, sits in a park, has a bit of a "walkabout," kills time until 4 o'clock when it's back to Webber Street for cups of tea and dinner. Afterwards, he goes to a nearby college to search the grounds for dog-ends (partially smoked cigarettes he uses for his tin of "road tobacco," an extremely harsh blend). He gets new cardboard for the night and then back to the post office, where he. settles in the same spot each evening around seven and, because he has to watch his bag, doesn't move from that spot until morning.

He chats with the postal workers about mail delivery, watches the people go by, says hello to them all, waves at the tourist buses (they invariably wave back, delighted), and waits for the hand­outs. Lee smokes his hash and reads his paperback with the killer rat on the cover, Charlie issues non-sequiturs, curses up at God and has fun with the charity workers who continually come by, offering his can of glue in response to their offer of a sandwich.

When a charity van pulls up, the street comes alive; dossers walk down the block screaming "Hand-out," socializing, clowning, the older men making Sugar Daddy jokes toward the young. People come out from all over, spilling into the alleyway where the van is parked, 50 or 60 people crowd around getting blankets, cups of tea. It's a frenzied, charged crowd of people swirling around, smoking spliffs, telling Paki jokes, slagging off the latest media intrusions.

 

Frankie Doyle, almost 60, an ex-boxer who's been sleeping rough off and on for about 35 years, is in the shelter singing old dosser songs, bragging, "I was a dosser before you were born .. .I'm a bigger tramp than you." On the streets he's a bit of a legend, but the alcohol and the lifestyle are destroying him. He loiters in Kings Cross station raging at police, drinking cans of beer and turning crazily belligerent on the younger men who come up to him with their amused Hey, Frankies. Now he's become an object of mockery, the men begging his dole money, asking for his can, teasing him, pinching his cheeks as he tries to lash out at them, unsteadily, screaming, "I'll kill you, I'll kill ya you fucken cunt." I walk him back to Simon when he's either drunk or withdrawing from drink, Frankie repeating "Here we go again," amused and exhausted.

"You're a good person Kevin. Will they let me in, are you sure it's all right, young Kevin? I don't want to get you in any trouble," Frankie's telling me as I guide and reassure him to the door. Then he comes in to the shelter to cheers - - “Tough Frankie, good 0l’Frankie a dosser's dosser” - - and he takes his seat as the war stories, hobo songs and prison poems begin anew.

And yes, within the misery there is the collection of colorful characters that every report from the streets inevitably catalogues. What's often ignored is the fact that the colorful characters themselves know and cultivate that image. The homeless romanticize themselves as much as any writer might, with talk of freedom, mean streets, survival and comments like, "It's a wicked world," and "Ninety-nine percent of the men sleeping rough in London are there because of a woman. A man needs a woman to keep him at even keel," said to a chorus of ayes.

The romance keeps the misery interesting. This is essential, for as much as the homeless have a need to romanticize, to stave off the monotony, the volunteers have the same need. The color and charisma is what elicits the most attention from a volunteer, the most visits on streetwork, the most help. And the well-liked volunteer is the one who plays the correct role in this drama; innocent do-gooder having his Pollyannaism set straight, listening in gee-whiz respectful horror to the tales of the street.

 

The majority of Simon volunteers are willing to work, but apart from housekeeping are often at a loss as to what they're supposed to be doing aside from chatting with the homeless. Severe alcoholics and drug addicts who've spent years on the street or in prison are in the care of people sometimes away from home for the first time, who have no understanding or experience with abuse or addiction. This is an endless source of humiliation and anger for the people who use the shelter.

In Simon there's no real structure, no set rules, no one in charge, very little training and no adequate supervision or screening of volunteers. There are those volunteers - - and many of the coworkers - - ­who are fully committed to Simon, but many others are just out of university looking for something to put on their social work resume. Or they want a bit of adventure: smoking a little hash with the exotic street people, securing liberal bragging rights that will sustain them throughout their 20s. They choose for themselves the funkiest clothes from the bags of donations, and are eager to go on the early morning tea runs where one can see larger-than-life characters in their natural habitat and even get to feed them.

Going through a cabinet in Simon I come across diary entries from former streetworkers in years past:

"He was weird. He was telling me how there's no happiness in his life, only hatred and where he comes from nobody smiles. Just at that moment I was smiling - - a bad move. He just stared at me with this evil expression and then burst out laughing. Weird."

Steve, an older man who sleeps in a doorway with his mate Johnny, regarding Simon volunteers: "These bloody high school tarts playing with people's lives. Chaz," - - for some reason he always called me Chaz - - how do you put up with it, these middle class kids who want a freebie, have Mommy and Daddy to fall back on and are going to tell me about being homeless ... 'Project leader,' 'door policy,' six people standing around having a meeting when a man is freezing outside. These silly fucken bastards, silly pratts, sitting there on the phone talking about what clothes they're going to wear on their day off when there's a homeless man sitting next to them."

The general climate is a mixture of chaos, oblivion and petty bureaucracy, where rules and policy are often just comments that someone once said, got passed around. repeated, and are then adhered to unquestioningly. Workers will call a meeting to discuss whether taking in a crippled old man who's sleeping in his urine outside the door violates Simon policy. (Is he too close to the shelter to be brought in on street work? Is he subtly manipulating us to take him in by sleeping so close to our door?) Homeless people are turned away from the door and given slips of paper with phone numbers that won't help them and addresses of hostels that won't take them in. I talk with a man who's been sleeping outside the door for days and find out that a few years ago he was prosecuted for lighting the Simon van on fire. Now he's threatening to break in and slash people's throats. There's nobody to tell, no one to call, so I regularly smuggle him out food and blankets, hoping to keep him placated.

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