Ray of light
“Hi Chris. Hope you still remember me? I’m Mr. August. I just wanted to wish you well. Best wishes.” This didn’t strike me as your typical spam email? Confusion followed in the moments after my computer sounded a new arrival to my inbox. Rationale followed, I could account for my whereabouts, this wasn’t a forgotten and somewhat troubling encounter due to excessive libation. Yet, the confusion remained – could this be a genuine correspondence? I had the benefit of a virtual wall of cyberspace to hide my confusion behind; but engaging in conversation to resolve this conundrum could unleash a torrent of spam – if indeed this was a bogus email. Curiosity won, a “Sorry, would you refresh my memory – have we met?” email was volleyed back.
When Mr August responded, this time signed off with his full name; Ray, the penny dropped. I felt ashamed not to have twigged who it was! I just hoped I hadn’t added further insult to injury – especially in Ray’s far from perfect situation; namely being homeless. We’d met a few months earlier whilst visiting Old Spitalfields Market. He noticed the weighty SLR camera hanging from my drooping shoulder and made a witty comment. We got chatting about cameras and the fact he’d taken part in the My London photography contest organised by Café Art. The aim of the contest was to empower the homeless by photo documenting London through their unique perspective on 36 (if lucky 37) frames of a disposable camera. One hundred and five homeless individuals took part and in total 3,000 photographs were submitted. One of twelve photographs selected, by judges representing the Royal Photographic Society, was his own and the reward was being assigned the month of August on a calendar – hence the ambiguous Mr August title. All profits from calendar sales made by Ray went directly into his pocket.
I was struck by his eloquence and determination to get on with life. However, it wasn’t the time nor place to go into great details about how he’d ended up homeless, but since I had my two daughters in tow I asked if he wouldn’t mind giving them a little life education; by way of a potted overview of his day-to-day life – to which he obliged. He even instilled a little humour into his monologue, by joking about how tough being homeless is – but being homeless and black was altogether another level. I thanked him for his time; handed him a tenner for a calendar along my contact details and asked him to keep in touch – which he duly did.
With the confusion resolved we conversed by email for a few weeks with the view to meet up. Eventually we agreed to meet at the Tate Modern – somewhere Ray would often go seeking inspiration. He looked well – considering his predicament and that it was the thick
of winter. I later learnt he had been blessed with the chance of housesitting for a few weeks. With temporary shelter he was mentally
and physically in a better frame of mind – which was why he’d been hesitant in meeting up sooner. A testament to the self-respect
he still retains.
Over a coffee we discussed photography; before the conversation digressed upon his personal life. Ray was born into a working class family in Croydon and achieved respectable qualification levels, although schooling wasn’t over quick enough for Ray. His parents guided him towards certain careers but nothing appealed to him. In his early twenties a position was made available at his Uncles fabric export company in Hong Kong – a brave move for someone who prior to this hadn’t left the UK; let alone being plunged into the humid and diverse culture of Asia. The opportunity wasn’t squandered and nearly a decade later a confident businessman, who’d worked his way up through the company to director, returned to London ready to seek new job opportunities.
Marriage and children followed and so with it the monetary trappings of life. To a casual observer Ray’s life was seemingly bliss – however, sadly within a short period of time his marriage went from being on the rocks to divorce. Without a marital home in which to live Ray moved into rented accommodation. Then his new vocation as a chef abruptly ceased due to racial incident towards him. Undeterred he turned his hand to cable installation – in which he excelled. Weaving a myriad of cables along, up and under ducting demanded a level of flexibility and good health, so after suffering a workplace injury he was unable to continue this line of work. Injured; no work; rent to pay; savings diminished and debts mounting – with no other option on the horizon Ray was forced to vacate his rented accommodation. Supportive friends offered up spare bedrooms and sofas, but this wasn’t a long term solution. After a few months the good will evaporated; the impending reality of life on the streets was inescapable.
Social housing proved pointless – being on the waiting list for years became dispiriting when pushed backed by apparently more urgent cases. Of his own doing he removed himself from the housing list. The benefit system was just as demoralising. Despite his best efforts to seek employment that wasn't enough for the benefits office. The relentless browbeating they subjected him to left his state of mind in a fragile way. Declining further benefits was the only way Ray could set himself free in order to try and rebuild his life. Whilst he recounted his life a timidness in his voice and stature was ever present – his confidence no doubt suppressed after many years of set backs. Yet surprisingly there was no self pity or loathing towards others – I admired that about him. In his own words “I’ve had the bespoke Armani Suit, not everyone’s had that – you move on and adapt to what you have in the present.” A lesser human would have crumbled and saw relief at the bottom of a bottle or worse. My far from professional perception of the situation, which is open to conjecture, is that the homeless fall into two categories. Those that want to change their situation and those that have just given up on life; Ray most certainly fits in the former. Aside from photography he also puts brush to canvas and occasionally manages to sell his work through galleries. Yet without a studio or abode in which to paint and store his pieces it’s an exhaustive process.
When money allows his room key is a weekly bus pass on the N15 route. Grabbing moments of sleep on night buses as they criss-cross London. It’s far from proper sleep, yet it does provide him protection from the elements. Through trial and error Ray knows which bus routes to avoid; rowdy routes that cater for the inebriated or bus drivers hell bent on speed and treating the quieter roads as a nocturnal rally section. However, Ray is always on a state of alert from those who feel his life is ripe for further negativity, by way verbal abuse, stealing what few possessions he has or at times physical assault.
Those in Ray’s situation didn’t volunteer for such hardship. Yet still they remain the kind of folk that many treat as invisible. Avoiding eye contact due to assumptions, often wrong, that they must be under the influence or mentally disturbed. Or maybe, just maybe, a proportion of us realise how fragile the protective bubble is that surrounds us. The option of ignoring helps us not dwell upon how quick life
What Ray needs is support not pity. I dearly hope his situation soon changes for the better. I remain in regular contact and even though my resources are limited I will continue to help him in whatever why I can. However, for the time being Ray is homeless NOT hopeless.