Most people are aware of the usual stereotypes about homeless people. "Druggies, down-and-outs, losers, gypsies" - these are just a few of the milder insults the homeless deal with on a daily basis. However, this is not the whole story. The majority of long-term homeless have in fact decided to opt-out of society, in what for many is a conscious and rational decision that accords with their deep-held principles.
This is especially true of one- John Updike, who just a few years ago was rummaging in a rubbish bin outside an office block in Sheffield. What he found there was over two hundred, brand-new Sony Ericsson mobile phones, discarded by the manufacturer only a few days previously. He was fortunate, as the next day the bins would have been emptied. However, fate often seems serendipitous, and the chance discovery was the start of something big.
John decided to empty the box of phones into his tattered rucksack, and instead of selling them for personal gain, he decided to give them away to the other homeless in his area. One month and 85 phone giveaways later, John discovered these were in fact no ordinary phones. What he had stumbled upon was an advanced prototype, one which could roam freely across all networks, was not subject to any charges or payments for texts or calls, and didn't even require charging.
The phone featured a special dynamo and gyroscopic mechanism, as well as light absorbent skin, which recharged itself using the kinetic energy of the user's motion, and light during the daytime. John didn't realise this though until other homeless pointed it out to him a month later. "We were afraid he'd ask for the phones back" Arthur McColville told The Spoof!, "so we just kept quiet about it. One day someone broached the subject on our usual park bench meeting at lunch. John was excited and happy at the news. So then we knew we could plan what to do next with him. All of us, the homeless I mean, in Sheffield, were wired up at that point. No one suspected us, because we don't own much anyway. The whole thing was pretty surreal".
To cut a long story short, the homeless organised themselves into groups of six or more, who patrolled the city looking for opportunities to make money. "We started off disillusioned and adrift from society" one man said, "but then as we started communicating with one another and organising ourselves, we spotted opportunities to make a bit of cash.
On a normal day, one of the "patrols", as we called them, which consisted of six of us walking together, would split up in the morning and cover all the roads in an area. We'd fish things out of skips or off the street, just junk people didn't really want. We set up a deal with the local scrap merchants, who bought a lot of our stuff, which was mostly re-usable and worth a few pounds.
About three months later each patrol was bringing in about £120 each morning. Remember thre were about 15 separate patrols each morning as well, so we were looking at nearly £2000 pounds revenue daily. John, who was de facto leader of our entire group, decided that we must start buying transport to load the amount of stuff we were collecting. Up till that point, we had mainly been using shopping trolleys to ferry the larger items. So we bought a van, and it worked great. We doubled our range, and our load-carrying capacity. Total group income went up to £3000 a day. Of course that's only after we branched out into collecting aluminium and steel cans for recycling. A couple of months later we bought a second van. That was just the start of it all, really".
Presently, the group has a total of six vans, makes £4500 daily, and operates from a six-bedroomed end-of row terrace, in an affluent part of the city. John Updike, now official leader after elections last July, said "We have an open-door policy at this house, the first of our premises. Twenty of our members live and work here. The other seventy or so have their own rented accomodation. There no more homeless as such in the city. Some people still get the odd bout of wanderlust, where they sleep outdoors for a night or two, but its nice to know they have somewhere to go. We have a real community now. Myself and a few of our members have begun giving talks in schools and colleges about our experiences. Everything is so positive now, it all goes back to that day in the rubbish bin. I thank my lucky stars, someone must have been looking out for me."
Several of John's members have become PCSO's and are now helping to police and maintain the community. "It's a great opportunity to give something back," one man said. As well as this, members of the group have teamed up with drugs charities and helpline operators to clean up users: "A minority of our members were drug addicts, but they've faced their demons. We could afford to send them to rehab to recover, and that's what they did. Now they are valuable citizens once more, and help to break stereotypes and set a good example for youngsters and addicts."