A dangerous life: down and out on Belfast's streets

Reporter Andy West found life as a homeless person unpredictable

I could have been killed. It was by far the most dangerous moment of my first night 'sleeping rough'.

The threat to my life - or at least - my body, was unexpected.

It was a busy Saturday night in central Belfast.

I'd changed into the clothes I'd bought earlier that afternoon in a charity shop near Queen's University. A pair of loose, tatty combat trousers, a threadbare woollen jumper, faded trainers and a baseball cap. I had a sleeping bag and a crushed cardboard box under my arm.

The pubs had already emptied and now the nightclubs were switching on their lights, spilling drinkers onto the square.

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It was the first time someone had noticed me and I felt vulnerable. ”

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Laughter, shouting and squealing mixed with the rumble of taxis and the wail of sirens.

A fight broke out a few feet from me as I sat, cross-legged inside my sleeping bag.

A lad stumbled backwards and trod on my feet. He turned and looked down and I wondered, "Is this it? Will he give me abuse? Hit me? Pour his drink over me?"

Vulnerable

Already, half of his pint had spilled out onto the paving slabs. He kneeled down and stared at me.

It was the first time someone had noticed me and I felt vulnerable.

'You okay mate?' he said in a slurred voice, wobbling sideways and then steadying himself.

I nodded. He chatted to me about his birthday and his girlfriend who had been flirting with his best mate and then he forced me to take money.

I tried to give it back, but he only gave me more. I have since donated it to charity.

Andy West Finding a safe and comfortable place to lay his head on a cardboard mat was not easy for undercover reporter Andy West

Later, a group of young women talked to me, patting me on the head like a dog and squeezing my frozen hand. I was touched by their kindness…and surprised.

One of the girls - small and blonde in a mini skirt and high heels - asked if I would like to stay at her house for the night. Her mum could cook me breakfast, she said.

Obscenities

Later, by a burger van, outside a club, four gym-pumped lads shouted at the Romanian rose sellers, pushing one against a wall and stealing another's supply of cellophane-wrapped flowers.

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I was looking for somewhere safe and hidden. I know now that hidden is not necessarily safe. ”

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The youngest - a skinny lad in jeans and a suit jacket - told me proudly he was on bail for grievous bodily harm (GBH).

It did not stop him shouting obscenities and punching the shoulder of a young woman who spurned his advances.

He and his mates shook my hand though and, for no obvious reason, decided I was their temporary mascot, competing over who could give me the biggest bite of their burgers.

Being British and male seemed to make me more acceptable apparently…more worthy of their sympathy.

"You're a hero mate. You should get a council house not the rest of them foreign spongers," one said.

I wondered what they would have done, had I been an immigrant.

Finding a safe and comfortable place to lay his head on a cardboard mat was not easy for undercover reporter Andy West

I had not expected to be looked after. I thought the biggest threat on the streets would be drunken gangs, looking for an easy target.

But the danger came in a quiet, shadowy recess, beside a shop in Belfast's smart, cobbled Cathedral Quarter.

Cold, wet earth

I was looking for somewhere safe and hidden. I know now that hidden is not necessarily safe.

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This is an unpredictable and dangerous life, where the greatest risk seemingly comes, not from being noticed, but from being invisible.”

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I was resting my head against the metal shutters, feeling the cold, wet earth chill my backside when I heard the noise of an engine.

I opened my eyes and gasped as a number plate and two orange lights moved towards my face.

It was like waking to find myself inside the crushing mechanism of a rubbish truck. A sack of potato peelings and yoghurt pots about to be squeezed and popped against the concrete.

The car was reversing steadily towards me, barely a foot from my feet. I rolled sideways and scrambled on hands and knees into the road, hoping no other car was rolling over the cobbles.

A woman saw me and shouted "Stop! There's someone there!". The car - a Mercedes saloon - jerked its brakes and a man climbed out as I stood up.

'Sorry'

I looked back at my spot. The cardboard mat was under one wheel. My sleeping bag was rumpled into the corner where I had been dozing.

Had I been fully asleep, I've no doubt I'd have been hurt. Perhaps crushed, perhaps just scraped and trapped.

"Sorry mate," said the driver. I looked back at my belongings and asked if I could retrieve them before shuffling down a shady alleyway.

I told myself I had to be more alert.

This is an unpredictable and dangerous life, where the greatest risk seemingly comes, not from being noticed, but from being invisible.

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