The horror of being homeless in Norwich during the big freeze
09:22 22 January 2013
On some days you could mistake him for a pile of rags, heaped carelessly in a doorway.
But then the blankets start moving. Or shivering.
Andy Francis lives in a supermarket doorway on St Stephen’s Street in Norwich, in plain sight of thousands of people who walk by him every day – some give him money or food, some attack him during the night, most simply ignore him.
As they head for home, wrapped against the icy winds, Andy beds down into his sleeping bag and blankets in preparation for another freezing night on the streets.
The sub-zero temperatures are just one more challenge for the 32-year-old, though, having been sleeping rough on and off for nearly 20 years, he is used to dealing with them in the same way he deals with most things: his solvent addiction.
“The cold is hard,” he says. “It’s really hard. The only thing you can do is wrap up – I’ve got a few sleeping bags and you get numb pretty quickly, but you still feel it.
“Some people think it’s funny I’m sleeping out. They shout things, and throw snowballs.”
He is thankful that his position, in the doorway of the Iceland supermarket, where he has lived since leaving prison in August, shelters him from the worst of the wind.
In some ways, Andy welcomes the snow – it makes the nights quieter, and there are fewer groups of drinkers in the city to abuse him.
“The body changes and adapts because of the cold. You grow extra hair, and your skin gets thicker,” he says.
This winter has so far been kinder than that of five years ago, when he was sleeping rough on Dereham Road and woke to find he had been “snowed over like I was an igloo”.
The night-time dangers don’t only come from the weather, but from people who try to steal his meagre belongings, or resent him being on the streets.
Andy was beaten up on Thursday night and left with a swollen left eye and split across his nose.
“He took the bin cage out of a bin and hit me over the head with it,” he explains. “He was shouting ‘street scum’ at me.”
Police and paramedics attended him, but Andy decided against going to hospital as it would have meant leaving – and probably losing – most of his possessions.
After he’d been patched up and treated, he settled down to sleep again in the same spot. He was beaten up again.
Attacks while he is sleeping are not uncommon, as are thefts of his few possessions – a rucksack, a sleeping bag, some blankets.
“I have to wake up to check my stuff is still there. If you hear even the slightest noise, you worry,” he says.
“You feel like you’re sleeping with one eye open.”
He leaves only to go to the toilet, buy food, drink or solvents, and then only when he can leave a friend to guard his belongings.
Andy chooses not to use the beds offered by Norwich City Council’s severe weather emergency protocol because of his dependency on solvents.
He uses butane gas, or lighter fuel, and up to 30 canisters a day, bowing his head every few minutes to inhale deeply from the canisters hidden within the sleeves of his green anorak.
“The gas makes you feel warmer,” he says. “It’s for the mind and body.
“It keeps me less stressed... like a weight has been lifted.”
The freezing weather sends him deeper into his vicious circle, as he uses more gas to keep out the cold.
He first started using solvents nearly 17 years ago, when he was introduced to it by a girlfriend, and since then has been one of the most consistent elements in his life, and seen him in and out of prison several times.
He says it was a way to forget an abusive upbringing and a childhood spent “bouncing around” foster homes around Thetford.
“It felt like it relieved everything, and all the pressure on me was being lifted,” he says.
“It takes more and more now to do it now though. It’s not as good as it was originally.”
Years of “double bubbling” – inhaling from two canisters at once – show themselves in his face: lost teeth, sores on his lips, boils on his gums.
But his butane abuse hasn’t managed to erase from his mind what he is trying to escape.
He rolls the sleeves of his green duffel coat up to show his wrists, each bobbled with scars and lacerations from years of self-harming: another way, he says, of filtering out “the images of the flashbacks”.
Andy says most people who pass him don’t realise what he is doing – don’t look and don’t care.
He has his regulars – people who leave him a fiver, charity shops which make sure he has a warm blanket, or restaurant owners who will drop off a hot meal in cold weather.
Others are more extravagant – one businessman bought him Christmas presents four years running, putting him up in a four-star hotel for the night with £200, cigarettes and alcohol miniatures.
“It’s like they want to keep me healthy because I’m doing the gas. They see how bad things are. They see me struggling to survive,” he says.
He can make up to £50 on a good day, which he budgets throughout the week to make sure he has his essentials: food and gas.
He saved up for a new pair of trainers as a Christmas present, which were stolen off his feet as he slept.
“I was so proud of them,” he says. “I saved up for them; even cut down on the gas. Then they get stolen while I’m asleep.”
Andy is unsure what the future will bring for him.
He knows he wants to get off the gas, but says he doesn’t know how. Where does he see himself in a year?
“I’d like to get my own flat again and get cleaned up and get back into work,” he says.
“But I’ve never been afraid of the morgue.
“I’m not worried about death. It should frighten me, but it doesn’t. It’s sad, but I think it’s true.”