James Campbell: A life less ordinary – a true account of homelessness

Recently made homeless, James Campbell has written an extraordinary diary about life on the streets – published only in The Big Issue

Several weeks ago The Big Issue was contacted by James Campbell. He was a man who had recently become homeless and was rough-sleeping. He wanted to write a diary charting the experience. Then James started sending in some pieces, and the clarity of his writing, the humour and darkness in his storytelling, became compelling.

“It just came to me one day that it might be helpful for me if I note down my experiences,” he says. “It keeps me active and aware – I’m always observing. There are some negative and frightening experiences but many can be very positive, really funny. I think that might surprise people.”

He’d write on bits of paper, then go to the library next day and type them up. A voice began to emerge. It paints a very different picture of life on the streets than the one you might imagine. The writing is so good we had to run it.

We start here. We follow James, who sells The Big Issue, as he seeks a way out. You won’t read this anywhere else.

June 1. This is how it begins

I am homeless in a major UK city and I am on my way to the Salvation Army to see if I can get something to eat. I’m skint and don’t know a soul. On the street, where the Sally Army is, I am approached by two guys.

“D’you want to buy any gear?” I am asked.
“What sort of gear?”
“Skag, smack man.”
“Nah, no thanks – it’s not my thing.”
“What about crack then?”
“Nah, not my thing either,” I reply.
“Legal High?”
“Nope.” The boy waves a bottle of white cider towards me.
“What about a drink then eh?”
“Nah,” I reply. “I’m not drinking at the minute, got stuff to sort.”
“What!? Are you a fuckin vicar?!”

Laughing, they make their way onwards leaving me to scrounge a bit of breakfast at the Sally Army.

The following day I am on my way to another place that provides food for homeless people and once again I come across the same two guys with another couple of blokes. They see me and one says to the other “Fuck! Watch out, it’s the priest!” They stand in a prayer stance. I look round, there is no priest anywhere. There is no one else at all, for that matter.

“Arite Priest” one of the guys says to me as I make it to the doorway of the free food place. They are talking to me. “Arite” I reply and make my way to the door in the full realisation that I had been on the streets of this city for four days and I had already been tagged. Maybe had a street name: Priest!

The diary decision

My decision to keep a diary of my time being homeless didn’t come to me until about two weeks after I had started sleeping rough. I spent the majority of this time finding out where to go, what to do, where to eat and shitting bricks!

I am 49 years old. I arrived in Edinburgh on May 17 in response to a crisis I found myself in. I had been ‘on tour’ looking for work. I was sick and tired of sitting behind the computers (which don’t work properly) at Kettering Job Centre.

I decided to travel up to Newcastle to seek work. I had tried to set up a series of interviews in the North East where I had a friend. One agency I had spoken to practically guaranteed me work when I got there (they had all my information, ID checks, police checks, everything required) and all that needed to happen was for me to be placed and start temp work. I was to stay with my mate in Newcastle. So I packed all my worldly belongings and off I went to start afresh and everything would be cushty. But as per usual, was it fuck!

I packed all my stuff and booked into a cheap BnB with one more job interview outstanding and hoping that the agencies would come up with something sharpish

The agency started to flounder and were stringing me along but not providing me with work. I was still attending interviews – they had their qualifying times and there was a wait there. In the meantime my money was starting to run out and I needed to sign on the dole. My mate was getting a bit edgy as time was moving along and I was in limbo and not moving along with it.

Eventually, my mate told me he was going away to work and because he was sub-letting his house from a guy who was renting it from a housing association (indeed, we wonder how the professional classes get by… this is just one of the ways!!) he didn’t feel comfortable me being there whilst he was away. I agreed, and I didn’t want to fuck anything up for him.

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So I packed all my stuff and booked into a cheap BnB with one more job interview outstanding and hoping that the agencies would come up with something sharpish. I had an interview in Durham on May 15 at 11am. I had been gone from my home town since May 1, International Workers’ Day. There was no job.

Within a couple of days I am lost, alone and on the street. This was the first time in my life I’d experienced anything like this. But I’m not focusing on how I got into this position. It’s all about how the hell I am getting out. It’s not a case of ‘if’ I get back to normality, it’s ‘when’.

June 13. A meeting with Coatbridge

One of the things with sleeping rough is the amount of people stopping at night-time. Most people are sound but one or two can annoy the fuck out of you especially when trying to sleep. To be fair sleeping rough is a dangerous thing and a lot of people spend their nights awake and try and get a kip during the day.

Me, well I try not to worry too much about it. If someone grabs me at night and kills me to death… May not be a bad thing. Not that I would welcome it, I just don’t want to think too much about it.

READ PARTS 2, 3, 4 & 5 OF JAMES’ ACCOUNT OF LIFE ON THE STREETS

Guy comes along to where we are sleeping, another fucking visitor, I should have baked a bastard cake! He’s about 25/30 years old, from Coatbridge and well ‘refreshed’ after a night out with the lads. His mates have ditched him, he’s missed his train home and he wants to talk. I want to sleep.

We have to be on our guard and be prepared to defend ourselves constantly

“Arite there pal, what you doin’ here?”
“Tryin to sleep.”
“I’ve missed ma train n ma pals huv all fucked off n uv got naewhere tae kip… You homeless then?” he asks.
“Yep.”
“You look oot ay it,” he says. “Are ye kitted up?”
“No, I am just very tired and it’s after two in the morning”.
“I hud a bit ‘o’ coke earlier on.”

Oh for fuck’s sake, I don’t mind him being here it’s the talking I don’t want and now he’s told me he’s scoobied… It’s gonna be a long night.

“Who they cunts?” he asks, pointing at N and G?
“That’s my pals.”
“Wake they cunts up n we’ll all get steamin’. I got loads ay bevvie here.”
“Nah man, they’re sleeping.”
“I’ll fuckin wake them up, well.”
“I don’t think you should.”
“Aye, get they cunts up.”
And with that he starts to shake G.
“I really wouldn’t if I were you.”

At this point G jolts upright, alert and ready to go, looks at Coatbridge and smacks him straight in the coupon, twice. “C’moan tae fuck man!! What is da fuck?” says G with his thick Portuguese accent. “Who da fuck you?” pointing both angrily and at the same time fearfully at Coatbridge.

Sleeping rough is a dangerous way to live and we have to be on our guard and be prepared to defend ourselves constantly. States of stress and fear are always high and often it’s lash out, run like fuck and consider the situation later when calmer.

“Bastard!!” says Coatbridge, putting his hands over his face. His nose is starting to piss with blood and is spilling down his hands and onto his shirt.

I reach into my rucksack and get some paper towels and hand them to him, with which he starts to mop up the steaming red liquid.

“Fuckin hell, there’s nae fuckin need fer that,” he says.
G starts laughing.
“Fuck man” he says “I am tired man, leave me to sleep.”
After Coatbridge cleaned up and has stemmed the flow of blood he says “Starving pal, you got any grub?”
Oh yeah, caviar and honey sandwiches if all right by he!!
“There’s a McDonalds across the road, open ‘til 4,” I say.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

And off he trots for a burger and chips. He returns with them and hungrily munches away to himself. N is awake and looks at me as if to say “let’s take his food and get him away”. I know that look. I just shake my head.

Coatbridge then cracks open a can of Tennents and remarks “fuckin freezing innit?”

I mean FFS is there anything he doesn’t need.

I got a spare blanket in my rucksack so I gives it him and after 10 or 15 minutes of talking more about his girlfriend and stuff (I think she has chucked him out), he nods off to leave us to sleep in peace.

6.30am and my alarm goes off and I wake everyone (I like to get our skipper tidied and ok looking so there’s no complaints of our residence there) including Coatbridge, who has a hangover and the onset of a pair of cracking black eyes. We pack our stuff and I walk Coatbridge to the train station and point out the train home for him.

I left him with two important pieces of advice.

1. Do not end up in a situation where you have to sleep on the streets.

2. Never, ever, wake anyone at 2.30 in the morning, who is sleeping on the street and needs as much rest as they can get, because you are pissed and want to have a nice ‘chat’.

He grins at me and I wave him off wondering what kind of bollocking he’ll get from his girlfriend when she sees the state of him.

Then it’s off to the services that allow me a shit, shower and shave.

Later that day I see ‘Coatbridge’ wandering about. He didn’t get the train and still looks pretty steamin’. I say hello but he doesn’t seem to recognise me, probably due to the fact that during the day I dress to mingle with the tourists and to lose that ‘street’ look. I get questioned a lot when at the free food places!

James Campbell is not his real name, and the photo is not of him

“A compelling piece of writing”

The reaction to James’ diary…

We initially ran James Campbell’s diary in last week’s magazine, and it attracted alot of attention from readers and established writers.

Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh  – who Campbell cites as a major inspiration – promoted his diary on social media. The praise was best summed up by Noel Smith, editor of Inside Time and author of The Criminal Alphabet, who has also spent time sleeping rough.

“This compelling piece of writing is on a subject the majority of people know far too little about,” he says. “I found it very evocative of my own experiences – the fear and strangeness of the life is almost palpable. I hope there is more of this to come as it is more interesting than anything I have read in a good while.”

It is more interesting than anything I have read in a good while

It was also the talk of the Edinburgh Book Festival – the city where Campbell found himself rough-sleeping. It was hailed as “an interesting, well-written read”.

Reader Lesley Stephenson’s sentiments were echoed by many. She tweeted: “This article sums up why I buy the mag in one – for the good and interesting writing and for the cause highlighted.”

Peter Sas was the only one who expressed disappointment. “Disappointed with JC’s Journal in this week’s mag,” he tweeted, before continuing: “Disappointed that it wasn’t longer. Keep up the good work.”