As I crouch next to the homeless man slumped in the shop doorway in Preston city centre, the stench of alcohol assaults my nostrils. I wonder if he will even be coherent. But Lee surprises me with his lucidity, his bursts of insight and his overwhelming sadness as he tells me about his shattered relationship and the nine-year-old son he no longer sees, after his ex-girlfriend took the child away to London.
Lee grasps my hand, but his next words fill me with humility: “Your hands are so cold! Here, take my gloves.”
As a journalist working and living in the Lancashire city of Preston for nearly 20 years, I’d thought I had a pretty good understanding of life around me. Preston by day buzzes with activity, rich in people from all cultures and backgrounds and brimming with university students. But as the final slivers of daylight disappear, an eeriness falls over the city and, if you look, the reality becomes clear: people are living shockingly different lives right on our doorsteps.
Nothing could have prepared me for those grim and fascinating tales of the desperate, dispossessed and despised. Over the six weeks of the original Twilight investigation for the Lancashire Evening Post, I heard graphic accounts of what it’s like to live with poverty, exploitation, homelessness and crime. And I met individuals living fragile, complicated lives, some of them blighted by mental illness.
Mike and Olga met while they were both homeless and living in tents on Preston’s Avenham Park, forced to hunt and skin rabbits to stave off their hunger. After painstakingly arranging fishing wire across rabbit warrens, Mike would hide himself in the park’s shrubbery, waiting and hoping. When a startled rabbit found itself ensnared in the wire, Mike would pounce in glee, knowing he wouldn’t have to go hungry that day.
“When you need to survive, you do what you have to do,” explains Mike, 27. “Rather than begging, I set up snares in the park and woods to hunt rabbits and I skinned them and cooked a stew.”
Mike had to learn survival skills during his years in care homes and psychiatric units, helping to manage the mental illness he suffered from. Twenty-year-old Olga was living in a tent and eating food cold from tins before she met Mike. When they realised they were both living in the park, Mike took Olga under his wing.
“I was in care from the age of five to 18 as my mother and father did not want to look after me,” Olga says. “I was living in a house with my ex-partner, but we got kicked out after he burned it down because he has a mental illness.”
The couple have now finally been given a home. After years of sleeping rough, however, Olga says it is hard to get used to having a roof over their heads. “The first night was really weird because we were used to being outside on the streets. Being homeless is difficult and it doesn’t get easier. But it does become a way of life.”
Mike and Olga aren’t the only ones who have gone to extraordinary lengths to put food on the table. Patrick Kilburn, 63, is a bin dipper or “freegan”. He says he hasn’t bought any food for five years: he finds all he needs scavenging through supermarket dustbins.
Patrick proudly shows me his haul from the night before – chicken thighs, pork chops, potatoes, a loaf of bread and vegetables, all with intact packaging. “Food is expensive, so I just go bin dipping every few nights and find everything I need.”
And then there’s “Nick”, a hard-working mechanic who wanted a better life for his family. So he borrowed money from a loan shark to invest into the garage where he worked. The missing little finger on his left hand is a souvenir of what can happen if you don’t keep up with the unreasonable payments and crippling interest rates of illegal money-lenders.
“I was paying back hundreds of pounds a month, but the final amount I owed was going up instead of down,” Nick tells me. “With backstreet lending, there is no proof of payments. I only had their word as to how much I still owed.”
Watch the television news or pick up a national newspaper or magazine and you would be forgiven for thinking everything happens in big cities like London and Manchester. But this snapshot of the lives unfolding in the streets of Preston reveals there will be countless people in similar situations in neighbourhoods across the country, however middle-class or suburban.
Those who believe all prostitutes are heroin addicts would soon change their mind if they met “Amy”, a nursing assistant who began selling her body to supplement her income.
Her voice trembling with shame, Amy tells me she has slept with around 200 men in eight months. “It started getting addictive because I thought it was easy money. It was an extra £250 to £300 a week – more than I was getting in nursing,” she says. “But it is not worth the damage it does to your self worth and confidence.”
Amy’s marriage almost collapsed when her husband, who has a chronic illness and cannot work, found out how his wife had been funding her new purchases. She tells me she will never be tempted into prostitution again: the realisation of what she had done made her feel “dirty and sickened”.
Months later, however, when we meet again, Amy confesses that she has been lured back into prostitution after plunging into debt and thinking that “one or two more times” would save her. Instead, she found herself taking cocaine to get through the ordeal of sleeping with men for money, and developed a drug habit for which she is now having treatment.
I also meet the wife of a man who has been ensnared by a predatory prostitute. She befriends vulnerable older men – particularly lonely widowers – and then drains them of their cash. “One of her favourite ploys is to help an elderly man with his shopping, go to his home and make him a cup of tea, then pop in to see him a week later,” says the man’s wife. “But all she really wants is cash to fund her heroin addiction. She has no qualms about ruining people’s lives.”
I soon discover at least three other elderly men in Preston who have fallen victim to her charms. They have handed over thousands of pounds to fund her lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. “My husband was always so sensible and cautious with money,” says the wife of the first victim. “I can’t believe this has happened to me. It is not what I dreamt for in my retirement.”
I’ve often been asked if I ever felt in danger or threatened during these Twilight investigations. I never did. The only terrifying thing was the realisation that one wrong decision or life-changing event and the world as we know it could crumble, making our city an entirely different place.
For a growing number, it appears to be. On returning to the streets for a follow-up to the series, I bump into Patrick the bin dipper again. He complains frustratedly that with more people struggling financially, he is facing increasing competition from other food scavengers.
“I know of a lot more people who go bin dipping now; I have even seen well-dressed people hanging around near supermarket dustbins,” he says. “It has ruined bin dipping for me, as there is nothing left when I get there. I am forced to buy reduced food at supermarket closing time and have to make cutbacks in other ways.”
In this Twilight world I observe countless acts of kindness: the extra spoonful of food heaped on a plate at the soup kitchen, a friendly arm round the shoulder to gee up a flailing spirit, those who dig deep in their pockets to give money or, even better, buy food for those on the streets. But I also witness cruelty from those who take what they have for granted.
During a final circuit of the city centre around 3am, I spy Lee the alcoholic homeless man again, still sitting where I spoke to him at the beginning of the night. As two men made their way past his huddled form, I hear Lee’s plaintive voice ask for some change.
“Get lost,” jeers one of the men. “Why don’t you get a job like the rest of us?”
The lasting image I have of Lee is of a forlorn figure placing his head in his red-gloved hands – the same gloves he offered me hours earlier.
Some names have been changed in this article. Read Aasma Day’s Twilight investigation in full at the Lancashire Evening Post
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