Until very recently, visitors to St George’s Crypt, a homeless project at the heart of Leeds, were greeted by the 6ft 7in frame of a former bare-knuckle boxer.
The 47-year-old Yorkshireman told us: “I lost my first three teeth from my dad.
“When I were 15, my mum went into a nervous breakdown from my dad’s violence and tried to suffocate me with a pillow. I remember waking up in the pitch blackness fighting to breathe.
“I left home that day. When I grew up all I wanted to do were fight.”
He moved to London with a friend but, three weeks in, his mate died of a heroin overdose. For the next 12 years he lived in Cardboard City, the homeless metropolis under Waterloo station.
His fear of needles kept him from heroin, but he says: “My poison was a can of Special Brew Gold mixed with cherry brandy.”
When we met him, he was the teetotal warden at St George’s, a job for which he seemed perfectly suited.
Years of violence had delivered a blood clot to his brain, but also made him an invaluable staff member at the crypt. “If I can do it, you can,” he told new arrivals.
But a few weeks later, the boxer, who we cannot name, had “moved on”.
Leeds is the penultimate stop of our Wigan Pier Project, retracing George Orwell’s steps through the north of England 80 years on.
Our visit to the Crypt comes to be defined by two men. The bare-knuckle boxer, whose life history could come straight from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. And Lee, a softly spoken builder, who is part of a new generation of homeless people.
Lee had always been in steady work and secure housing. He had no addictions or mental health problems. But at the age of 50, his building firm got into difficulties. “The industry went flat,” he says. “For a while there were suddenly no extensions or new builds.
“We didn’t get paid for some of the work we’d done. I got into financial difficulties and very suddenly my house got repossessed.”
Lee’s parents had both died. “I stayed with a few friends, but you can’t keep putting on people,” he says. “In the end, I’d used up every favour, I felt lost.”
One night, he found himself with no sofas left to surf. “I decided to try and find a place to sleep down near the Jobcentre, so I could look for work.
“I went to a bar that had closed down. It had some steps below street level so I lay down there. It had a broken sign that I pulled over the top of me so no one could really see me. It was the worst four days of my life.”
He found a day centre offering washing facilities, which referred him to St George’s Crypt, where he was able to get proper help. He eventually moved into a shared home. He says: “I volunteer here now. It’s the least I could do.”
Orwell made two visits to Leeds, first in 1930, when he was writing Down and Out in Paris and London, and again in 1936, researching Wigan Pier.
On his first visit he stayed with his sister Marjorie and her husband Humphrey Dakin, in Bramley, where St George’s Crypt run a satellite project.
Local Labour MP Rachel Reeves says: “Leeds has changed beyond compare since Orwell’s day, but housing is still the main thing people come to the surgery with. People are still desperate for decent, affordable homes and are battling with low pay and cuts to support.”
Opposite her surgery is the building where Dakin’s local pub, the Cardigan Arms, used to stand. It is now flats.
Dakin recalled taking his brother-in-law to the pub, saying: “He used to sit in a corner by himself, looking like death, until it was with some relief that we’d hear him say, ‘I must go home’.”
By Orwell’s next visit, the Dakins lived in Estcourt Road, where a cardboard cut-out of Will Smith in the window now hints at students in residence.
Russell Cameron, 53, bought the house 15 years ago with the payout from an accident at a chemical factory, where he suffered burns. Tenant Kyle Newbould, 20, the son of a taxi driver and cleaner from Harrogate, North Yorks, is studying to be a sports therapist at the university.
He estimates he will leave £60,000 in debt. He says: “It’s so much that you almost can’t get your head round it.”
When Orwell first visited during the Depression in 1930, the Crypt at St George’s had just opened to help a tide of homeless people, many of whom had fought in the First World War.
The young, charismatic vicar Percy Donald Robins, known as Don, opened the Crypt himself. Andrew Omond, who works at St George’s, says: “The first £3 ever raised for the Crypt was spent on canvas to cover the coffins and gaping holes. The congregation brought milk, sugar and cocoa. Men poured in.”
In 2018, the homelessness problem is growing again, with the number of rough sleepers in Yorkshire and the Humber region increasing 139% last year.
Now the Truth Poverty Commission has been set up to let people tell their own stories of hardship, which is part of the aim of our Wigan Pier Project too.
In February, more than 150 people went to Leeds City Hall Museum to hear 30 people launch their “Humanifesto” and share their personal experiences.
Amina Weston, 23, told a packed audience: “Poverty dehumanises. It’s not just the constant struggle to buy enough food to feed the kids or having to walk everywhere because you don’t have the bus fare, it’s about paying more for your electric and gas because you don’t have the credit history for direct debit.”
Amina had to give up studying for a degree after she and her husband Tristan were evicted from their rented home while she was pregnant with daughter Aria.
They have since found a new, affordable home. Now Amina and her sister are setting up Education Aid, providing school uniforms for low income families.
Amina says: “It isn’t right that families can’t afford to provide uniforms and we don’t want children to be left out or miss school because of that.”
Eighty years after Orwell’s visit, the Humanifesto concludes: “What really grinds you down is the way other people perceive you… Any society is weaker when some of its members are excluded. Poverty dehumanises us all.”
Join us on Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier
The Mirror is retracing George Orwell’s Road To Wigan Pier.
If you live in Coventry, Birmingham, Stourbridge, Wolverhampton, Penkridge, Stafford, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield, Liverpool Manchester, Wigan, Barnsley, Sheffield or Leeds, and have experiences of poverty now or in the 30s to share, we want to hear from you.
Get in touch at [email protected], @wiganpier80 or write to Wigan Pier Project, Daily Mirror, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5AP.
Or you can simply follow our journey at mirror.co.uk/wiganpier80 .
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