‘Being Homeless’ by Eric Harper

Being a witness

In the weeks that followed there was constant police activity. The whole group was preoccupied, anxious and hyper-vigilant. Jane constantly watched the streets to see whether there were any police around. We all witnessed this increase in police activity. The group was told to get off the streets, not to drink etc. They became very anxious and there was a sudden increase in violence within the group. There was another suicide.

A few weeks later a man who was new to the area tried to attack me when I said I did not have a light. Jane jumped in: ‘He is outreach, a counsellor’. She and the rest of the group threatened him. Later on someone hit him.

During that month I sat through what was not a pleasant time. Jane and the group were drinking more than usual, which I felt reflected their distress at being confronted by the police. The actions had uprooted the twilight space that typified their existence. I said very little and simply witnessed their distress. I found that a great deal of my time was spent withstanding one demand after another. There was an endeavour to rope me into the drama, to see if I would ‘fix’ the demand of the moment. Some of their behaviour was aimed at making me feel responsible. I noticed how different the work on the streets was from that of cold weather shelters. Within a cold weather shelter there was an audience, a law, something to push against – the antisocial behaviour often felt like a sign of hope (Winnicott). On the streets there was a sense of nothing being there to push against. The most effective ‘attack’ was the threat of suicide and self-harm. I was struck by the high level of actual deaths – ten over a period of eight months – due either to drug overdose, suicide or illness.