Wil­fred De’ath

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

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.

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