We’re waiting for the 43 bus to take us into Nottingham, on the look out for some timely retail opportunities when we become aware of a dishevelled elderly man muttering into a mobile firmly attached to his jaw courtesy of a scarf he has secured around his head. His muttering continues with a range of expletive deleted’s and it becomes clear that he’s very confused and very distressed. His challenging, cajoling, arguing of his phone companion means that he keeps repeating the same phrases again and again, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly to himself but all the while into the mobile and the invisible caller at the other end.
Thankfully, the bus arrives to carry us away to the land of retail interventions and away from the old man who has no idea where he is, where he’s going, or what day of the week it is.
When he tries getting on the bus, he can’t say where he wants to go, doesn’t know where he needs to be, and to cap it all, someone’s taken all his belongings and he has no idea what’s become of any of them.
He’s unsteady on his feet and the bus driver sympathetically asks him to sit down, otherwise he can’t let him on the bus. The instruction eludes him and he continues to sway unsteadily, whilst a few passengers try to help him take some steps towards the seats so that the bus can continue its travels to the shopping nirvana to which we are all headed.
Physically unsteady he might be, but our neighbour has other ideas and is rock steady when deciding where he wants to stand on the bus: not with the other passengers, some of whom are getting tetchy and cat calling him, but next to the driver, lurching to and fro as the bus tentatively negotiates the busy Nottingham city streets.
Our fellow passenger soon becomes so distressed, that we have to get off the bus with him in Hockley and try to find out where he’s going and what help he needs.
It turns out that his name is Robbie. But he can’t speak coherently about much else. I suggest phoning the friend he has just been talking to so ferociously so he agrees and lends me his phone. There are just five numbers on his phone contact list: two of which look like agencies who might be able to help. I phone the first, but there’s no answer. They might be out at the sales too I reason, so I try the second number, Bentinck Road, and with some relief speak to someone who helpfully advises me to take him along to Sneinton Hermitage where he will be welcomed and given a cup of tea. He’ll then be picked up by the local outreach team who would be heading down there later that afternoon.
So far so good. It also turns out the 43 dropped us off near Emmanuel House, an agency which specialises in working with homeless and vulnerable people so my friend pops over to establish whether they are open and to fix him up with a meal.
So far so unfortunate. We take Robbie into Emmanuel House only to be met with a firm rebuttal. He can’t come here. He’s been banned before and there’s no room for him. He has to go somewhere else. This is a bit of a setback as we thought that the prime purpose of Emmanuel House was precisely to look after people like Robbie. But ours is not to reason why, so a member of staff helpfully calls for a cab and we head down to Sneinton Hermitage where we expect to be met with open doors and a warm welcome.
So far so a bit worse. We arrive at the Hermitage only to find it shut for Christmas and the opportunity to go shopping, and an apologetic caretaker who explains no-one will be there for several days.
This is a touch exasperating given Bentinck Road’s advice to take him there and meet the Outreach Team. I phone Bentinck again who advise me this time that there was another house some doors away which would welcome Robbie. This turns out to be a complete red herring. The house a few doors away has one man who looks at us in complete incomprehension and then proceeds to slam the door shut and not open it again despite regular knockings and ringing of bells.
After some random searching of the local streets, we find another agency, Michael Varnam House, who were open – but not to Robbie, and not to people who were not referrals and certainly not to people who have issues. And they don’t mean unreturned library books.
Another series of calls with Bentinck provides lots of other fruitless opportunities. There was another agency – London Road Hostel – who might be able to take him. No, they won’t take him either it turns out. He isn’t a referral, and in any case, he has a track record with them too so there’s no way he’s turning up on their doorstep for the night.
It also transpires that the Outreach Team can’t come and pick him up after all as they don’t work that way. Robbie has to be out on the streets before they can do anything – and that was only if they bumped into him en passant, so to speak. There’s no way they could organise a later pick up. Clearly Uber technology has yet to inform Bentinck’s Outreach team’s modus operandi. Given they were driving around the city later that night, and Robbie’s state of distress was increasing by the minute, the idea that he might be picked up at some point in a hypothetical future strikes me as ridiculous. He could well have died of hypothermia by then.
Bentinck then reveal that they expelled Robbie some 24 hours earlier and that there was no way that he would be allowed back on the premises given his track record. If he did turn up, then they would call the police. My phone manner was becoming increasingly vocal at this point and when I echoed the word ‘police’, Robbie pricked up his ears and his distress rose visibly with them. There was no way he was going to a police station. They’d already beaten him up, already badly manhandled him, he said, showing us some bruising on his wrist.
So we have one more choice. We debate about taking him home and soon knock that idea on its unsteady head. We’re trying to help but we too have our limits and that there’s no room at our inn either. We realise too that we cannot spend the rest of the day driving Robbie around Nottingham in various Ubers or take him to the sales expecting him to help us spot a bargain in the haberdashery.
So there’s one final call to Bentinck. We’re bringing him up to yours: you apparently still have all his belongings and if that means that you’re going to call the police then so be it.
We call the next Uber and before long, an incongruously large blue Uber Mercedes turns up, complete with DVD screens in the back seats, and we get in, and drive over to Bentinck Road. On the way, we manage to speak to a friend of his, George, who’s one of the five numbers on Robbie’s phone. He thankfully picks up the Robbie baton and says he’s making his way to Bentinck so that he can pick him up and find somewhere else where he can stay for the night.
We arrive at Bentinck to be met by a staff welcoming committee of three who are resolute in not letting him into the building. Thankfully though they accept our off load and we scarper off back into town in the luxurious blue Merc, thankful at least that George will be turning up at some point.
On the way to the Victoria Centre I spot the poster from Nottingham City Council which states that ‘No-one need sleep rough in Nottingham this winter. if you or someone you know needs help, contact local charity Framework…’
At this point, an abyss opens up for me when I realise that despite the Council’s claims, the reality is for some people like Robbie, the state has no capacity to help, the voluntary sector has had its patience exhausted and is up to its eyes in referrals and there is nothing left to do than rely on your own supply of dazed and confused resources.
For all our Christian shopping values and retail therapy opportunities, there will never be room at any inn – or in Robbie’s case, the eight combined inns of housing agencies, domestic homes or bus rides. The image of just five contact numbers in his phone magnified the loneliness and loss he carried with him deep inside his threadbare duffle coat. It struck me afterwards that for all that earlier muttering into the phone which was locked to his jaw, it was more than likely that he wasn’t talking to anybody at all, but just maintaining a pretence of a connection with another human being.
Fortunately, later that day we hear that George has found room for Robbie in a Bed and Breakfast in Alfreton Road in Nottingham and that they’ll be going down to Housing Aid first thing in the morning which is a relief. We just hope that he isn’t expelled from Alfreton Road in the meantime and that Housing Aid are able to open their doors to him and help settle his nerves, calm his distress and point him in the right direction. God knows he needs it.
(First published in the Nottingham Post, 3 January 2018)