Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours

There’s nothing like having a homeless person camp out in their car on your street during the winter to find out about strength of your community.

So he’s been here over a week, he’s kept himself to himself in his quiet despair. I saw him the first day, staggering around a little with what looked like a can of ‘brew in his hand. Dirty hoody and tracksuit, stiff, furtive. Getting something out of his car, rummaging round. Not the usual profile of the daytime parkers in my street, who tend to be smart looking office types, glancing at the time on their phones as they march off with their cases and keys, looking slightly sheepish as they catch your eye parking in front of your house.

He comes and goes, days go by without seeing him. Yet the windows in his car are covered with condensation, great big droplets, dripping, things get moved around.

Occasionally scary men in jeeps with official symbols on the side stop with engines running and hazard lights blinking. They talk loudly into mobile phones, open the man’s car doors, unravel his bedding, leave notices on his windscreen.

The street email list has been ablaze with talk of parking schemes, and lack of police aid, how difficult it is to find someone to do something in the council.

I finally saw the man again, he was walking with rucksack and bundle of clothes  slowly down the street, I passed him and parked up, and got out of the car. He saw that I clocked him, he paused by a lamppost suddenly studying it, hoping that I would suddenly not notice him anymore or lose interest. I plucked up the courage to speak with him.

I said hello, and asked him how long he was here for, He said “a month”, and that he was looking for work. I asked him if he needed help, he said he did not understand and could not speak English.  He had stayed at a homeless shelter one night, but could not go back there again. He did not know what to do. He smelled strongly of really bad alcohol and humanness and fear. I said I would phone to find a place for him to stay. He looked hopeful, we said goodbye.

On my way out again, I gave him a banana and an apple through his car window (he shot up out of his duvet in fright when I knocked). He accepted gratefully. I introduced myself, and he said he was called Poytr.

I sent a message to the street email list, saying his name was Pyotr, from Poland. Just in case people forgot that he was a real man there, suffering. You know, as a foil to perennial parking scheme discussion and inevitable the NIMBYism. Seeing as we had a community event in the summer to collect for a local homeless charity, the irony was not lost.

To my delight a neighbour came round, and filled me in on what some of them have been doing. So though no direct contact had been made (apart from once), some people were leaving hot meals outside of his car, and snacks on the bonnet. Newspapers in Polish, and numbers of homeless charities. Trying to contact a local Polish Chaplain. Yay!

It is not illegal to sleep in your own car on a public street. The police say this. However it is not a rational decision, or something that would come easy. It’s been dipping below freezing here regularly at night. Obviously he needs help. The difficulty is finding out how.

These people all do really important work in Cambridge. But no one answers their phones on a Sunday.