Becoming homeless happens in stages. Patience wears thin, and pride gets in the way

You might lose your job, the company that owns the place in which you live decides it wants to make more money out of it, and then circumstance does the rest.

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In search of light reading, I go to the room in the Big House set aside for the holidaymakers who stay in the yurts, and pick out a John Grisham. You know where you are with a John Grisham. You’re going to get chewing gum for the brain, pleasant but non-nutritious, something nicely plotted about lawyers written in strictly utilitarian prose that will keep you turning the pages, and two days later you will have forgotten absolutely everything about it. And there’s nothing wrong with that – we can all do with that kind of thing from time to time.

However, it soon became clear that the book, published in 1998, was not one that I was going to forget in a hurry. Without going into too much detail about the plot, the novel, called The Street Lawyer, is about a young hot-shot who, for reasons that need not detain us here, resigns from his extremely swanky Washington, DC law firm and joins a tiny, perpetually broke firm that works to keep the homeless off the streets by enforcing their legal rights in the face of official and semi-official obstruction.

It’s most implausible – our hero takes a massive pay-cut, for a start – but one thing is clear: it was written in the white heat of rage at what the policies of politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani (then mayor of New York City) were doing to those forced to sleep on the streets – or, rather, what they were doing to put them there in the first place. And even though it is set more than 20 years ago, it is no less relevant today. It is about a Hostile Environment put into action.

Of course, the situation in DC in 1998 is not the same as that in the UK in 2019. For a start, the homeless in America then were disproportionately black; here, and now, we are slightly more equal-minded when it comes to putting people at the bottom of the heap.

And the reason this book freaked me out so much is – new readers start here – because in a couple of weeks, I have to move out of the home I’ve been living in since June last year. (Actually, I’ve been living in this particular house since December, but it is an annex of a larger estate. The principle’s the same.) The problem is, I have nowhere to go. I’m not going to move back to my mother’s; I tried that, it didn’t work. My Estranged Wife has helpfully told me that I could move back into the house she ejected me from, but I’m not sure how her boyfriend would feel about that. Or, indeed, she.

To paraphrase an old joke of PG Wodehouse’s: young people, starting out in life, often ask me how to set about becoming homeless. The answer is: you lose your job, or in my case my main job, the company that owns the place in which you live decides it wants to make a lot more money out of it, and after that, you don’t have to lift a finger. Circumstance does all the rest for you. The astonishing generosity of the people who have been putting me up lately has put a brake on the process, but I can’t be a charity case forever. The only problem is finding somewhere else. I could, I suppose, move to Sunderland, where I don’t know anyone and might not fit in, but at least rents are cheap – but a small, selfish part of me likes to think it would be nice to live in the same part of the world as my friends and family, like I used to.

I liked to fancy a similarity, more of mood than literal detail, between my circumstances and the chaos that this country is undergoing. With this difference: my chaos isn’t self-inflicted. And I can see the alternative to my situation staring me in the face wherever I go. It’s not abstract, in the way a constitutional crisis is abstract. When I travel on a train, much of the time it is spent going by houses. On my trips to London, I am surrounded by houses. Man, I say to myself, look at all those houses. All those windows behind which one can live, all inaccessible to me. I feel like an involuntary celibate looking at a beauty pageant. It taints every thought, every interaction. “That’s all very well for you to say,” I sometimes catch myself saying to myself, “you’ve got somewhere to live.”

Grisham’s novel made it very clear – and this is also a lesson that such charities as Shelter have tried to make clear – that one does not immediately jump from having a home to living on the streets. It’s a gradual process, one of whose key stages is sofa-surfing, and relying on the kindness of others. After a point, you realise, either their patience wears thin, or yours does: one gets sick of relying on other people. There is a desperate kind of pride involved. I’m getting to that point, and I haven’t a clue what to do. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty