On the streets for 16 years… out of choice
10:23pm Wednesday 11th March 2015
By Julie Armstrong
Tonight, forecast minus three, he will sleep on the porch of Kington St Michael Church after dining from a skip at the back of Iceland.
After sleeping rough for 16 years this is nothing new. It is not because he has seen his business go under or his benefits sanctioned, but because this is the life he chooses.
Colin, 63, said: “Some of my friends have settled down, put themselves on the housing list. The last time I had a flat was 1999.
“I don’t sign on, I don’t even use night shelters, I’m an outdoors kind of guy. If I’m outside I can smoke. I’ve been smoking for 50 years.”
Despite having the rare chance to sit somewhere warm at a drop-in session of North Wiltshire homeless charity Doorway, he would rather we spoke outside where the temperature is 5C. Even in the time we talk he is soon on his feet, wanting to take a stroll to the river.
Why so cheerful? “I haven’t got the worries,” he said. “The important thing growing up is to take on responsibility, to feel like you are a fully fledged citizen. I am a child of the 60s; it was a very irresponsible decade.”
Asked if he has any aspirations, he chuckles and says, “To get this thing lit”. When his struggle with the dog end is won, he takes great care to move away so his choice of smoking is not imposed on me. For someone growing up in an “irresponsible decade”, Colin has impeccable manners. As we approach a rain splashed bench he insists on placing his jacket over it to shield me from the wet.
Possessions are dismissed as “pointless”, people owning them as having “something to lose”. “Their bank accounts get raided by the internet,” he said. “I’m not in their vulnerable position.”
As if to illustrate this point, a bird passing above chooses to leave its mark on my coat. Colin’s thought on this impertinence is, “Cleanliness can be a phobia, it can become an obsession. It ruins our lives. I’ve made walking mine, because it came so natural to me.
“I never learned to drive, what’s the rush? There’s nowhere I have to be for a particular time. I daren’t start making commitments.
“It’s all about speed now. How good something is, it’s always measured by how fast it works. I don’t wear a watch, and I don’t have a phone. No one needs to reach me for a particular reason, and that’s nice to know. I make a point of not having phone numbers or stuff like that. If it’s meant to be, it happens. It’s a bit of magic.”
Does he find this lifestyle lonely? “Some of the characters I’ve met, if I was desperate for company I could easily have ended up in prison,” he said. “Although I’m a loner, at least I know what I’m doing, I don’t get myself into trouble.
“People say to me, why don’t you get yourself in prison, over the winter, you get three meals a day. The number of times I’ve heard that.
“That would be quite acceptable to them.”
Something approaching scorn peeks through his gentle tone and I am taken aback by such pride from a man who has nothing but what he can carry.
“I don’t beg,” he said. “If I meet lots begging in the streets of Bristol and Bath, I’ve to remind myself they have an addiction. I don’t drink now. I used to, but I’m in my 60s and it’s important to get old gracefully.
“That’s the little bit of pride I’ve got. I’m not laid here with a load of empty cider cans around me. That’s having no power at all.”
Being in control is important to Colin. He has shunned everything that threatened to limit his freedom – a phone, a watch, even hygiene is viewed as a possible obsession. The only thing he obsesses about is walking, his need to roam akin to someone more conventional pining for home.
This is why he doesn’t sign on – it would interfere with his wanderlust. “It’s the buzz of seeing what’s over the next hill, I never get fed up of it,” he said. “Just to hear the birdcall, it is a wonderful thing.”
It’s 4.30pm and the light is drawing in. Doesn’t he get cold? He laughs and points to his legs. “No, I’ve got these boys. I’ll just walk through the night.”
Imagine a world where you are encumbered by nothing and beholden to no one. No duties, no deadlines, no hassle. This is Colin’s utopia.
The flip side is his dinner, if it materialises, will most likely be out of a skip, but that doesn’t bother him. He is free – and his freedom is what matters.
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