I have been NFA (no fixed abode) in UK and SDF ( sans domicile fixe) in France, ie homeless, for more than 40 years, ever since my marriage broke up in 1977. It has not been a bad way of life. It has existential advantages.
The chief drawback, so far as I am concerned, is the authoritarian nature of the people who are meant to help you. Take the woman who arranges for people who would otherwise sleep rough to sleep on Cambridgeshire church floors during the winter months. She allowed me on to the scheme for one month in spring but excluded me during the following winter on the grounds that, at 80, I was too old. She referred me to Cambridge City Council which, she said, had a ‘duty of care’ towards me.
The CCC’S ‘duty of care’ amounted to a disgusting, cockroach-infested bedsit on the other side of town. I spent seven unhappy months there. I would far rather have slept on a church floor – which can be surprisingly comfortable once you have climbed into your nice clean, warm sleeping bag. Also, the church provides a delicious supper beforehand…
Things are much the same here in France. In Paris, the lorry driven by bénévoles (volunteers) does the nightly round to pick up the clochards (tramps) off the streets and take them to secure accommodation, but they get very few customers. The clochards distrust the bénévoles (they call them bénévoleurs (robbers) because they feel that they are being robbed of their precious freedom to sleep where they like. This is a very French thing, and, to some extent, I sympathise with it. François Mitterrand, when he was President, said that no Frenchman should have to sleep in the streets, but thousands do.
Here in Limoges, where I am writing this, I spend the nights under a tree in a little park near the station. My neighbours are Africans and Arabs, immigrants to France, who have designated the tree as mine and leave me alone. On cold nights, I sleep in a doorway of a Subway restaurant where I always sleep quite well. I think of Adolf Hitler, who slept in shop doorways in Vienna for three years before the First World War, which was the making of him. I wonder if he ever thought that, 20 years later, he would be Chancellor of Germany…
The Subway manager, who arrives at 7am, is not pleased to see me. He shouts, ‘ Partez! Partez!’ (‘Leave! Leave!’) – so I do.
About one night a week, some money having arrived from The Oldie or the Royal Literary Fund, I go to a hotel. It costs me about 60 euros, including petit déjeuner. It is like the moment when you stop knocking your head against a brick wall: a great relief.
Homelessness is a state of mind. I cannot imagine living in any other way. I do not want to own a house – I would not own the house; it would own me. I have become used to sleeping rough and I expect to continue doing so. I have no time for ‘the system’ because it does not seem to have any time for me.
The British government has just promised an extra £215 million for the homeless next year. But no amount of money poured into ‘the system’ will make me change my mind: I expect to continue with this way of life until I die.