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Homeless man lives under arch of noisy dual carriageway and tells time by light

A homeless man has revealed how he chose to live under the arch of a dual carriageway and tells the time by the light.

Paul has lived under the noisy overpass in Birmingham for 11 years and says he does okay for food and feels safe.

Graham Young from Birmingham Live spoke to Paul about why he lives the way he does.

As I peer through a tall, metal fence I can see a bed three feet in the air and a newspaper held up either side by a pair of hands that look big enough to catch a rainbow.

To the left, there’s a suspended string with a line of washing hanging up to dry.

And, all around on the floor a mixture of everything from rubbish to tool boxes, an old Dulux paint tub, various clothes, boots, and newspapers. Lots of newspapers.

But while every Englishman’s home is said to be his castle, there’s always an exception to every rule.

Here I’m facing a deceptively spacious, open plan railway arch with no inglenook fireplace and no telly in the corner.

There’s also no peeling wallpaper on the curved wall.

Just those dark blue engineering bricks beloved by the genius Victorians who built the brick-saving arches to support the city’s railway arteries that will surely, in centuries to come, be as attractive to tourists as the pyramids are today.

And it’s here that we find a real life hermit happily living at the heart of a fearsomely busy – and incredibly noisy – dual carriageway.

A place that just happens to have equally noisy trains rattling along overhead, too, and the pneumatic drills of nearby engineering works.

Only the frequent whines of emergency sirens pierce the din.

When the man’s sixth sense kicks in and he lowers his newspaper to see who’s watching him at the heart of this chaos, he offers me a ready smile.

Though he has few teeth, his face certainly hasn’t sunk, his chin whiskers are neatly trimmed and his hazel eyes are bright.

Despite the humbling surroundings, you instantly know that here’s a man who wants for nothing and will ask for even less – except a cup of human kindness.

“What do you want?” he asks politely.

I tell him we’re from BirminghamLive and have simply come to say ‘Hello’.

“No pictures of me,” he says and we agree the deal given that he’s happy to talk.

For the moment, I have to shout through the steel fence.

“I can hear you,” he says as I cup my ears.

“Ah, but that’s because you are in your ‘cave’ – I can’t hear you very well,” I reply.

“You can’t come in, this is my home,” he says, clearly abreast of the news about Covid-19

“Are you able to come out then?” I ask.

The man carefully folds up his paper, swings his legs out of a bed that’s built on top of rat-free scaffolding poles leading to beer keg tops for stability and begins to look for his boots on the floor.

Minutes later he seems to have looked everywhere twice, while folding up more papers, one of which includes The Times, no less.

“What are you looking for?” I eventually ask, wondering if he really will ever come outside.

“My brown wash bag,” he replies.

Minutes later, he lifts some coats out of a flexible storage holder, and there is his wash bag – he just hadn’t pulled enough clothing out to find at the first time of asking.

This is the kind of thing millions of us do every week – we know where something is, but just can’t find it until we’ve gone back to where we thought it was in the first place but somehow couldn’t see it.

The washbag is popped into his rucksack ready for his next outdoor adventure.

Our respective love of newspapers has already forged another common bond between us.

But then I find another.

“What time is it?” he asks.

“What time do you think it is?” I ask him back.

I show him my bare wrists and say: “I’ve never worn a watch… I prefer to feel the time rather than to know it.”

“I think it’s 1.30pm,” says my kindred spirit.

I pull my phone out of my pocket to double check.

“It’s 1.40pm,” I show him.

“I thought it was about that,” he says, pointing up to the curve of the arch above him.

“I could tell by the light.”

And with that he begins to free the padlocked gate ready to step outside to say ‘Hello’ – at which point he agrees to be interviewed on video without showing his face.

Carrying a hi-viz body cover for when he goes out on his bike, he’s wearing grey boots, a pair of workman’s ‘Stanley’ trousers and a green jacket.

He looks as warm as his demeanour which tells me we haven’t found John Rambo.

Regardless of a Shelter report last December which said ” one in 66 people in Birmingham was homeless ” – and therefore a problem to be solved with “radical change” – he insists he’s here by choice.

I learn that his name is Paul, that he was born in Sorrento Hospital in Moseley – a district where his 80-year-old mother still lives – and that he’s the oldest of her seven children.

He has a son and daughter of his own who he says he hasn’t seen since 1993.

Armed with those facts, we’re ready to roll.

As you’ll see from our five minute, unannounced interview you see in the above video, he has no fears about his future existence.

And that’s because although this Paul knows he ain’t no saint, he’s still as happy as Larry in the moment that we’ve come to share.

How do you feel living like this on a day to day basis?

I don’t think about it, I just do it. That’s the way it is, I’ve got nothing to say about it.

What kind of food do you eat and where do you get that from?

I go to soup runs, a chip shop and Sikhs. Water comes from a tap just round the other side of the bridge.

How long have you been here?

The last five years. I went away for two. And six years before that. So I’ve been here 11 years.

You have a padlock on the gate. Do you feel safe?

The lock has only been there for the past few weeks since lockdown in case people are coming around looking for somewhere for themselves.

What’s like living in a pandemic when you are underneath a railway arch?

I don’t think about it. I don’t worry about things that don’t concern me. It is what it is.

Are you registered with a doctor?

Yes. And I see him every month. I’m pretty healthy.

I take no drugs.

I haven’t taken drugs for eight years.

What did you used to do?

Heroin. Crack. You know what I mean. Cannabis. Stuff like that.

Have you ever been ‘inside’?

Yes. In the whole of my life, I’ve done about 15 years in prison.

Three months here. Six months there. Two years there, three years there… altogether.

And what was that for?

Vagrancy acts, begging, trespassing…

I broke in once, but I’ve never hurt anybody. I’ve never done violence.

Does prison work, having been inside?

No.

What should we do instead then?

Bullet in the back of the head.

Really?

Where are things going to go ten or 15 years from now?

Crime is getting higher and higher and higher.

Coppers won’t deliver. We’re going to end up protecting each other, ourselves.

Will it not get harder to live in a place like this as you get older?

I’ll worry about that when I get there.

Have you got children?

Yes, but don’t see them. I’ve got two. A boy and a girl.

Don’t you wish you could see them?

Well they know where I am. It’s up to them.

How do they know where you are?

Through our mum.

You’ve still got your mum?

Yes, she’s coming up to 80. And if I’m happy, she’s happy.

Are you from a big family?

There were seven of us – plus parents.

I am the oldest. Two went into the Army.

My sister become a nurse.

Normal layabouts the rest.

And me.

What made you live in a different way to everybody else?

I just did. It just happened.

I didn’t want to be in an office. A factory. Just sitting there working.

I went out and worked on a farm.

I wanted to be out working and to see something before I got older.

When ordinary people see the homeless they want to do something to help them. But you’re telling me you’re happy the way you live.

I wasn’t pushed on to the streets, I chose to be on the streets.

I don’t live in doorways or park benches, I live in tents or places like this, squats, caravans and buses and all that.

The people you tend to see on the streets now, they’re just too lazy to get off their arses basically.

I know most of the homeless in town, some of them couldn’t be arsed to work.

Do you look down your nose at them then?

No, no, no… basically we’re all the same family. But you’ve got to get off your arse and work these days, you can’t just expect other people to give you… basically, right, they come round asking ‘You got this, you got that’ but you have to get it yourselves.

Do you get any income?

I can get £10, £20, £30 a day from the scrap yards if I want to and pay it back when I can. If I can’t pay it back, right, I do some work for them.

Other than that, no outgoings?

No, nothing.

What should members of the public do about the homeless. Just leave them be – or try to help?

A bit of both.

So give them the option to be helped, but if they don’t want to be, let them be?

Carry on, yeah.

Have you got a favourite football team?

I don’t like football. Never have done.

Do you have any concept of what it’s like to watch television?

When I’m in prison, yeah. Then it’s a lifesaver.

Other than that, I’ve always wanted to be out on my bike.

Skateboarding when I was young, trying to get girls when you were getting older.

I’ve never fancied telly. I’ll sit down and watch a film – I like Lord of the Rings type films, things like that.

I was into Lord of the Rings before I even knew who’d written it.

It was only about 2000 when I started to take an interest (in who’d written) it (and that author JRR Tolkien had lived in Moseley a few hundred yards from where he was born).

I’ve got about a million books in my mum’s garage.

What advice would you give to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in terms of all the lockdowns?

I’m not a politician. I don’t know what to say.

I’ve never voted. Never.

They’re all as bad each other. Give them some power and they change.

Do you like The Queen?

She’s done me no harm.

Have you got a favourite song?

It’s not Rule Britannia.

But I like all songs.

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