I walk into a surgery and see a man with a swollen leg sitting near the reception desk. I recognise him – I’ve seen him sleeping on the streets a few times. After a while, I hear him talking to the nurses and the doctor about his leg. “I need to get it checked out,” he says. The staff try to be patient at first but quickly become curt, criticising him for being half asleep and telling him to go to his own GP, saying that they can’t help. I hear him mention that he needs £20 to get into the backpacker’s hostel, where someone can come to examine his leg.
When he’s alone, I go over to him and slip him the money. As I turn to walk back to my seat, he clutches my hand and says, “Please do something for me. Don’t let anybody corrupt that heart of yours. Please keep being kind.” I promise I will, and as I return to my seat I hear him crying, and I can’t help but cry a little too.
A week later, I’m walking down the street with my friend – we’ve just been shoe shopping at the Westgate Centre. Suddenly, I hear a shout from the man begging outside St John’s – I recognise him as Simeon, a rough sleeper who I’ve often spoken to and the husband of Vikki, a street poet. “Vikki died!” he yells. For a second I’m not sure if I’ve heard him right. “I just wanted to let you know because I know you did a lot for her.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Vikki, the incredibly talented, sarcastic and sweet woman who beamed at me whenever I ran into her, who wrote a poem about homelessness for the On Your Doorstep Campaign – dead. “She had a heart bypass,” he says. “And then she got pneumonia because we were on the streets, and then she died.” I don’t know what to say. “Thank you for telling me. I’m so sorry – take care.” I walk away, still shell-shocked about Vikki. I’m concerned about Simeon, but optimistic that he’ll be okay – he seems okay, at least.
On Sunday, I get a Facebook message from my friend, telling me that she wants to get involved in homelessness because a guy died outside St John’s that day. For a second, I stop breathing. “His wife died recently too,” she says. And that’s when I know it was Simeon. I’m at a complete loss. Vikki was 43, Simeon was 30. They shouldn’t have lost their lives at that age – let alone have lost them due to homelessness in one of the richest cities in the country, surrounded by one of the wealthiest institutions in the world.
How can our government be so complacent? How can our colleges, our University not be more concerned and more involved in this issue? Oxford claims it’s a charity, and yet it can invest in offshore oil extraction – and not homelessness. I feel hopeless, but at the same time know we can’t give up hope. It’s more important than ever that we mobilise and fight for the rights of the less fortunate in this city. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s make Vikki and Simeon proud.