Skip to main content

The Tale of Billy Rugg and the Kindly Taxi Driver

‘It was the mini-milks that did me’ explained the bespectacled Raymond. I had asked him about the highs and lows of his time sleeping rough on the streets of central London. You won’t be surprised to hear that Raymond’s reminiscences covering the highs were somewhat on the thin side, whereas the lows…..

‘There were five lads and none of them could have been more than fourteen. They said they were going to get me a surprise from McDonalds on The Strand. I hadn’t eaten for more than a day and was hoping for a Big Mac. Instead they came out with a tray of those little milks for the teas and coffees with the tops all peeled off and threw the lot over me. I was soaked and as it was milk I knew it would smell too before much longer. I went off to the Passage (a day centre) to plead for a change of clothes. I felt at my lowest. It was a bad feeling having the piss taken out of me by kids.’

In my experience the petty indignities suffered by people sleeping rough often leave psychological scars that are far more painful than the wounds received through the random acts of physical violence which are also part of the rough sleeping experience. Pre-meditated humiliation meted out by those apparently devoid of conscience, reminding you that you are utterly powerless and in the eyes of some, less than human; what can bite deeper than that? When I hear a story like Raymond’s I find myself anxiously, obsessively, searching back through my memory to find an antidote - an example to counter the mortifying image of a person with nowhere to turn being shamefully degraded.

Thames Reach has a London cab, the famous Hackney Carriage which we use to ferry rough sleepers off of the street to hostels. It has our name on the side along with the logo of our sponsors. It looks exactly like any other London cab apart from not having a registration plate to the rear that proper taxis are required to carry, or the familiar light at the front that is activated when the cab is empty to indicate that it can be hailed. Occasionally we get into a spot of bother with members of the public who are not always convinced by our tale that the cab is for the exclusive use of the homeless. Returning to the cab one freezing night at Piccadilly Circus following a brief foray in search of a rough sleeper in need of a blanket, we found a well-heeled women sitting in the back. It took fifteen minutes of beseeching to coax her from the back seat as she listened sceptically to our description of the homeless underworld we inhabited, clearly convinced that this was a ruse to avoid having to go south of the river.

Back in the 1980s when I was a street outreach worker we had to rely on hailing cabs in order to get rough sleepers with mobility problems to hostels for the homeless. This was a stressful affair as, with depressing frequency, the approaching cab sped away once the driver had spotted the sorry state of one of his potential customers. Indeed, on occasions arms were nearly wrenched out of sockets as, in vain, we attempted to retain our grip on door handles to prevent the driver from rectifying his mistake and disappearing into the night.
One balmy spring evening we came across Billy Rugg. Billy was a gold card rough sleeper, one of a group known as ‘the Famous Faces’, rough sleepers entrenched in a damaging lifestyle on the street who we were particularly desperate to help indoors because of their poor health and vulnerability. Billy was in a terrible state, clearly intoxicated and pitifully confused. His trousers were sagging with faeces and urine. We checked that there was a space for him at a hostel in Covent Garden and, grimly determined, we set out to hail a taxi. For a while the usual pattern repeated itself with the taxi’s indicator light giving us hope before being abruptly cancelled as the dishevelled Billy came into view and the taxi swerved away from the curb. Eventually a cab stopped and, tenaciously hanging onto the open door, we bundled the leaking Billy inside.

As we wended our way towards Covent Garden the mild reek inside the cab grew to a nauseous stench and I began to feel pangs of guilt, knowing that this was a smell that would not later be erased with a wave of the hand. Eventually we reached our destination and, gripping Billy under the arms, we heaved him out of the cab, leaving behind a damp seat for the delectation of the next customer. Barely being able to look the cab driver in the eye I nervously thrust a note through the cab window and prepared to beat a quick retreat. ‘That’s OK mate – no charge tonight’. I was struggling to make sense of this response and asked him to repeat himself. ‘You lads are doing a great job getting granddad off the street – see it as a donation’. He drove off before I could mumble my thanks - and that was that.

Over the next few weeks we frequently found ourselves mulling over Billy Rugg’s epic journey and its surprising finale. We wondered how long it would have taken for the smell in the cab to disappear, speculated about what had motivated the driver and felt abashed that we had formerly joked that all cabbies were racists from Romford. ‘I had that Billy Rugg in the back’ we mimicked in true Private Eye style ‘and, my god, he was full of shit!’ But, most of all, we drew sustenance from this unexpected act of kindness from a stranger on our side, on the side of the homeless.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Very much enjoyed this piece and shared it on http://sockmob.blogspot.com with the proper attributing links. Cheers Jeremy. :)
Jeremy Swain said…
Thanks very much Janum. Rough sleepers seem to bring the best and worst out of people.
John Brannan said…
I find myself anxiously, obsessively, searching back through my memory to find an antidote - an example to counter the mortifying image of a person with nowhere to turn being shamefully degraded.

Nice bit of writing there, take it from someone who knows...
And I would say you found your example Jeremy, in the form of "The Kindly Taxi-Driver"

Nicely written pal.

John Brannan

Popular posts from this blog

The Bullshit Detector: Investigating a report into homelessness amongst former armed forces personnel

The Bullshit Detector

The Bullshit Detector being an occasional investigation into stories associated with homelessness and social exclusion, with a view to establishing their accuracy and veracity

The July 2013 Bullshit Detector
‘Up to 9,000 British heroes who served Queen and country are homeless after leaving the military’
What’s the story?
On 21st July 2013 the Sunday Mirror ran a two-page campaign ‘exclusive’ on the plight of British services personnel leaving the armed forces. The piece was highly critical of the government, claiming the situation has got much worst under the Coalition and, in an accompanying leader, comparing the UK situation unfavourably with that in the United States.  
The article centred on two key statistics. Firstly that 1 in 10 rough sleepers ‘across the UK’ had been in the armed forces, with the clear implication being that these are British ex-services personnel who ‘fought on the frontline but now sleep in doorways, graveyards and parks, begging from the …

Street homelessness: The dangerous appeal of the street magnets

Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. 
Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. 
In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period.  Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnerable, often drug depend…

Out of sight - sleeping rough in car parks and corridors

From the seventh floor of the multi-storey car-park at this late hour the view is rather magnificent, but a cruel wind is whipping up the rubbish and there is not a soul around. I’m a Thames Reach London Street Rescue team volunteer tonight searching for rough sleepers with my colleague Rob and we have received a self-referral from a man sleeping rough in the car-park. It’s been a frustrating night. In Hounslow we discovered plenty of cardboard bedding but not the group of Lithuanians we feared could be sleeping rough. Under Kew Bridge and in a park in Putney the lone rough sleepers we have been tasked with contacting were not in their usual places. I ruminate on the unsettling paradox of being grievously disappointed not to find someone sleeping rough in sub-zero temperature.


But here on the stairwell we find our man, a 21-year old Pole called Karol. His is a story which is virtually a generic tale of youth homelessness. He came to this country as a fourteen year old unable to speak a…