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From cocaine to porcelain: how one homeless person escaped crime

Michael Jacobs meets one of Oxford's many homeless people to hear his life story, from crime to happiness to living on the streets.

“Sometimes a scared person is the most dangerous person”

Pete (his real name is withheld for reasons that will become apparent) is never at a loss for words. I arrange to meet him outside Taylors using the number he gave me after I met him coming back from a night out the week before. He offers me the other half of his cardboard seat, asks me how I am, then, without hesitation, gets on telling his story.

From a family which fled from Belfast to Liverpool during the Troubles, Pete’s early life was one that often forced him to live outside the law. With a father high up in a criminal business that engaged in everything from money laundering and class A drugs, to hiding runaway IRA members, Pete says he had to be hard and unforgiving. ‘Don’t give people any care,’ was what his father demanded. By the time he was 15, his dad was locked up for life and Pete had to abandon his job at a catalogue shop in order to help run the business for a few years – until a “fuck-up” led to the loss of £170,000, leaving him and others who were implicated to face severe punishment. Pulling your trousers down and having a shotgun fired at your legs (kneecapping) was the norm for big mistakes, he says. Pete was shot by his brother in both legs. His brother had said he didn’t want to shoot him. He shows me the scars of the entrance and exit wounds along his legs. His friend however, was killed from a shot in the back of the head. He repeatedly says that the loss of the money was his fault and that he should have been the one killed.

“I told you I’d have a good story,” he adds wryly as he watches me scribbling this down. “Though I bet if you told your mates they’d say it was a load of rubbish.”

After this incident Pete decided to sever all ties with the business and with that world. The best way to disappear? He points down at the pavement. “Go to the streets… tone down the accent, don’t mix with criminals.” Yet this didn’t mean an end to the crime. The £3,500 needed for his sister’s IVF treatment, as well as a heart operation for a nephew with Down’s Syndrome, were funded by a series of robberies, ultimately leading to a stint in Dartmoor.

But it was in prison when his life finally took a turn for the better. The first few times he met his future wife (a Christian prison worker) he was tongue tied, finding no other way to approach her than by walking up to her with an empty milk bowl that needed refilling. As soon as he was out, the pair settled into a council house and they had two children, one of whom was later lost in a car accident, along with his wife. Devastated, he took to drinking. He hardly remembers the four years that followed.

That was all 12 years ago and ever since he has been living off building and repairing bikes, selling on valuables unnoticed by charity shops (an eye for antiques which he gained from his mother), and the few benefits he receives. After the fines he repeatedly gets for begging, he usually only has about £74 left over from his fortnightly £180. Walking with me down Little Clarendon Street, he shines a light though a shop window and onto some pieces of porcelain crockery, as well as some pictures which he says will fetch a pretty penny down at a place on the high street. He talks about other paintings, and says Munch’s The Scream is his favourite. It’s been evident that he is popular round town, as going down the road he regularly stops and talks with people, checking how they are, agreeing favours and asking after their bikes.

Reconciling himself with his past has not been easy. “Sometimes I hate myself,” he says in a moment of reflection that cuts the general pace of his story. Nowadays he can’t stand violence, and will break up fights whenever he can in an attempt to be “a half-decent person.” Tomorrow he’s going to visit his daughter in Bath, about whom he waxes lyrical, describing in detail her appearance and the complexion of her skin, “pale like porcelain, angel blue eyes, dark copper ringlet hair” – an “Irish beauty” like his mother, he says with a twinkle.

After he’s looked over my bike and recommended some repairs, he tells me to take care, and then walks back into the cold, parallel reality increasingly being shared by hundreds of homeless people every night in Oxford.

 Oxford Homeless Pathways works alongside a thriving network of organisations to provide life-changing services for homeless people in Oxfordshire: http://www.oxhop.org.uk/

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