Richard is a beggar – ironically called Rich. Whenever I see him, I give him a pound coin. (Always give to a beggar.) I also give him books. He’s 42 and has been begging on the streets of Otley, West Yorkshire, for six months. He sleeps in a tent on the edge of town. He lived in his girlfriend’s flat and, because she had mental health problems, he was paid as her carer. One day, for no apparent reason, she threw him out and he lost his home and his job all at once.
Can’t family or friends put you up?
The family and I don’t get on. Now and again, especially if the weather’s bad, there are people in Otley who allow me to sleep on the sofa or the floor. Nothing permanent unfortunately.
How did you cope with the snow? Was the tent OK?
There’s a number to ring which gives you a place in a hostel if the temperature drops below zero. I don’t really need it as the tent has reinforcement and a tarpaulin.
What sort of work have you done?
I’ve done a lot of stuff – factory work, gardening, electrical assembly, decorating … but recently I’ve been doing admin or advice type work. This is work I’d like to get back into.
How much do you make a day?
It varies wildly. Some days I’m lucky to get £5 but on very few occasions I’ve had £30 – £40 … this was at Christmas. I do two or three hour shifts and make around £10 a day. I’m always touched by people’s generosity. People don’t have to say ‘Hello’ let alone buy you food or give you their hard-earned money.
Otley is a small market town. Leeds is only 10 miles away. Wouldn’t you make more there?
I don’t want to be in the big city. I don’t need loads of money and I prefer the friendly atmosphere of Otley. Also, as an ex-alcoholic, I fear temptation to drink again if I were in that situation.
Why can’t you claim job seeker’s allowance and a place in a hostel?
I can’t get jsa as I have no address but I’ve applied for it recently using a care-of address.
What are you missing most?
I miss my pc most. Once I get somewhere, I’m looking forward to some war-gaming.
I notice your hands are always dirty. Couldn’t you wash them in the public toilet?
My hands get dirty very quickly due to being out on the street all day. I have to collect wood etc every morning, move dirty tarpaulins and stones and rocks. I usually just get a wash at night- time using wipes or, if I have gas for my burner, I can use soap and hot water. There are a few people who let me get a shower if I stay over.
What’s the worst thing about being a beggar?
Having to sit out every day whether you want to or not. There always seems to be some essential like food, batteries, stove gas, bus fares, phone money, that you need. The damp is pretty miserable too.
How do you see being a beggar ending?
I see this ending once I get benefits through – hopefully soon now.
How do you see your future beyond that?
I see it as a fresh start. Once I get housed, I can do anything I like. I’d like to do a master’s degree so I guess I’ll get a job and save up for that.
‘The real beggar is indeed the true and only king.’
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729 – 81)