A heart-warming and inspirational story of Paul West, a homeless man, living on the streets of Leicester, who sells his drawings to help him achieve his dream of moving to the coast.
Sat on the freezing cold pavement in his sleeping bag, the homeless man was drawing in his sketchpad when I approached him. He was surrounded by his art, which was placed in poly pocket’s and neatly blu-tacked to the floor. There were various sketches of superhero’s and villains, cartoon characters and robots, but I was instantly drawn to a charming drawing of Pikachu smiling, skipping and smoking cannabis. I asked the homeless man how much he was selling it for and he replied: ‘whatever you want to pay for it.’ With that, I gave him all the change that I had in my pocket, put the drawing in my bag and sat down, cross legged on the floor in the high street next to him.
I later learned that the homeless man was called Paul West. He was a Leicester local who became homeless four years ago after the council wrongly accused him of benefit fraud and evicted him from his flat. For two years, Paul begged on the streets which repeatedly landed him in trouble with the police and authorities. ‘They threatened to give me an ASBO’ he said, ‘but instead the police man told me to learn a talent, so I did, and I’ve been travelling the country ever since.’
It all started in Leicester when he brought his first colouring book and some felt-tip pens from Poundland with money he’d saved from begging. ‘I used to colour in the pictures and rip the pages out, but then the public suggested that I tried my own work, I didn’t have the confidence, but I gave it ago.’ He told me that he’d like to get his work on to canvases and then maybe get online, using Facebook and YouTube as a platform to promote his art. Then he showed me a sketch of a marvel character that he was working on. ‘I messed up the head a bit’ he said modestly.
As we sat and chatted, a lady came over and bought a sketch of Spiderman from him for her son. She explained how her daughter had noticed him on the high street and had recommended his work. ‘Apparently, I’ve become a local celebrity. I think everyone in the city knows of me. I think I’ve even got a nickname now.’
‘What is it?’ I replied.
‘The Drawing Guy’ he said fondly.
I was curious as to how such an intelligent and humble man had been living on the streets for four years. ‘If a normal member of society becomes homeless basically, they’re f*****. They’re doomed because they’ll either end up on drink or drugs. Paul explained how he fell into the trap of using synthetic cannabinoids, such as spice and mamba, which were legal and readily available to buy from corner shops until 2016. Despite beating his addiction, Paul told me that ‘it’s hard to avoid it on the streets’ because ‘it’s all over town’. No one see’s what it’s like out here, you see a homeless guy on the street for two minutes and then they’re gone. Everyone needs to experience it. Before I was homeless I’d never given any money to a homeless man, I was that sort of person.’
‘What’s the dream?’ I asked. He pointed to his donation pot on the floor which had a few pennies and pounds in, ‘I’m saving them’. Paul explained how he’d like to find somewhere isolated, somewhere that ‘no one has never been to in the UK’ and build a life there for himself. Next year, when he has saved enough money, he is hoping to tour the south coast with his art work. He’s already travelled to places like London, Cheltenham, Skegness and Southend-on-Sea but he came back to Leicester, his hometown, to save for his next adventure. He dreams of finding an isolated beach, away from the police and authorities, away from drugs and the violence, away from the streets and the city, where he will finally have a home.
‘I have this drive because I don’t have a choice’ he said, ‘begging isn’t the answer anymore.’