Dennis; Tony; Gary B; These men can be found in the doorways and on the pavements and under the arches of our capital city. They have chosen to live this way, if what they have chosen can be called a life. In the current political climate, those who offer them warmth are frowned upon. But, as Roy Hattersley discovered, it's cold out there. And it's getting colder
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Tony Cahil spent Sunday night in the doorway of Jones shoe shop in the Strand. He picked that spot because he knew that, at about midnight, the Salvation Army convoy would pull up six feet away across the pavement, with hot drinks, sandwiches and toothpaste in the minibus, and shoes, clothes and blankets in the van.

Dennis Kelly - small, bearded and disgruntled - slept "under the fire escape in Fleet Place, just behind Blackfriars Station". But before he climbed into his sleeping bag, he walked up to Kingsway to have his Salvation Army supper.

Clinton Smith - not his real name, according to his neighbours under the arches, which face out on to the Embankment at the back of the Adelphi Theatre - built himself a cardboard packing case and plywood shelter for protection against the cold November air. He has to dismantle his hut by half- past six each morning, because that's when the flagstones on which he makes his bed are hosed down by Westminster City Council. But he persists with the spot because he likes "a roof over my head".

That doesn't mean that Clinton longs for the comfort and respectability of a real house and home, however. He's a whey-faced 18-year-old from Manchester who has been on the streets since he was 14. He and his girlfriend, a fragile 17-year-old with a brace on her teeth and a suspicious cold sore at the corner of her mouth, say they "manage very well". They are united in the circumstances which brought them on to the Embankment.

"Dad beat me up," he tells me. "Mum didn't want me after she remarried," she explains. Clinton, in his snap-brimmed trilby, leather bomber jacket and jangling chain belt, clearly believes that he cuts a dashing figure. He talks grandly about perfecting "the fire-eating and balancing act" with which he hopes to entertain the London theatre queues. Nobody, it seems, has told him that living rough reduces life expectancy by 20 years.

Indeed, whether they admit to loving life on the streets or they profess to loathe it, the men and women who sleep out in London are almost unanimous in their determination to avoid the discipline of hostels and the responsibilities of tenancy. During the time I spent last weekend on the Salvation Army's "soup run", which each night delivers food and clothing to derelicts in central London, only one "customer" even aspired to conventional comforts.

A cadaverous fortysomething, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he had spent the afternoon "shifting the rubbish and rubble" from a hard- to-let flat on an inner-city estate. Even he, it seemed, was not in any hurry to fill the black bags or to change his way of life. The rest of the men and women I met were not even considering moving on. They either expressed a positive preference for sleeping rough or - like Tony Cahil, the man in the shoe-shop doorway - they exhibited all the inadequacies which had brought them on to the street in the first place.

Tony was not so much typical of the men around him as the embodiment of all the characteristics which have led them to the Strand. He is unable to cope with the normal business of life. Ten years ago he came to London and "met a girl who was on drugs". Inevitably, he followed suit. He insists that he is "trying to get off it, but rehab never worked". The Salvation Army offered him a place in a hostel but someone told him that "they ask you to hand over all your money". He needs "two shots of heroin a week to keep awake" and they cost pounds 15 each. "If I don't have money, I'll either beg or steal it."

When he says that he "would like to get into a cold weather shelter, but can't find an outreach worker" to put his name on the register, his real problem - now far worse than addiction - becomes obvious. He is pathologically incapable of performing the little tasks which for most people are part of the routine of everyday existence.

He is warm in his scarlet parka ("a Christian took it off his own back when he saw me shivering") and his army surplus jumper. And every night somebody - the Salvation Army, the Chocolate Run, Bond Way or one of the other organisations which help the hopeless - arrives with food and hot drinks. But if there was nobody to help him, he would not haunt the job centre, put his name down for a council flat, or open a savings account. He would simply be cold and hungry.

Tony - like most of the men and women on the streets - thinks of the charities that bring him help as his friends. The tradition of the Salvation Army requires that Captain Paul Johnson, a Christian minister who regularly assists with the soup runs, and his squad of six volunteers neither preach nor patronise. The sleeping bags they hand out are emblazoned "Jesus Loves Me" but everyone involved is clear that the warmth they provide is more important than the message which they convey.

Last week, Louise Casey, the director of the Government's new Rough Sleepers Unit, complained that the bags were "as good as anything available in survival shops". But the Army volunteers, more famous for warm compassion than cool logic, are bewildered by the irrationality of the criticism. Ought they to distribute inferior sleeping bags?

Down on the Embankment, meanwhile, Nicholas Parish - who describes himself as "a beggar by trade" - shares his bed with three dogs, Fox, Welf and Gemma. Each is groomed immaculately and kept warm by a smart coat. Three gleaming stainless-steel bowls, filled with proprietary dog food, sit on the flagstones next to Nicholas's makeshift pillow. The dogs are his life - but also, he claims, the cause of his misfortune. Neighbours in his council flat complained (wrongly, of course) that they were an intolerable nuisance. When he was forced to choose, he preferred Fox, Welf and Gemma under the stars to heat and light without them.

Some of the explanations given to me for living rough were neither as appealing nor as convincing as Nicholas's. One anonymous resident of the Embankment claimed that his troubles began when, at the age of seven-and- a-half weeks, he was fostered with an "unsympathetic family" and came to a head when the police and the taxi authorities conspired to remove his taxi-driver's licence. Another stooping geriatric had spent five months in the Sister of Charity's hostel in London's Carlisle Place, but "had words with the sister in charge" when he told her that "it was depressing in there".

John Ferguson, whose mother had spent some time in London before he was born, left Ireland with the traditionally mistaken impression that England was the land of opportunity. He claimed - much to the sceptical amusement of his fellow rough sleepers - to live in a tent which he pitched in either Green or Regent's Park. Ferguson - tiny as a leprechaun in a Tottenham Hotspur baseball cap and earrings big enough to satisfy a Spanish pirate - leapt up and down with delight as he spoke. He will stay on the streets because he likes it there.

So does Gary B, who "prefers to be outside, because of the freedom" and has a scar which runs from his hairline to the bridge of his nose as the result of a "knife attack on the night of the Paddington rail crash". He has used his pseudonym "ever since the breakdown" and that is how he now thinks of himself.

The elderly drop-out from the Sisters of Charity's hostel says that Thames Reach (a London housing association) offered him a flat, but he prefers the "companionship on the streets". This companionship is built around a distinctive street culture which binds the rough sleepers together with bonds of mutual deprivation. A middle-aged man with rotting teeth insists that he was persuading Clinton Smith's young girlfriend to have the brace on her teeth removed. "She's had it since she was a kid. Now it's doing more harm than good." They all warned each other not to answer potentially incriminating questions. My presence prompted one man to say that talking to me was "as dangerous as talking to the police".

The camaraderie among the homeless is so great that some lonely itinerants spend a convivial evening with the street people before returning to their more comfortable, but less congenial surroundings. Pat, a resident in Edna House - a Paddington hostel which she describes as a "home for elderly delinquents" - turns up each Sunday at the Kingsway meeting point even though she rarely wants anything more than a hot drink.

"It's the companionship that brings me here," she cries, pointing at the Salvation Army minibus and shouting, with a strangely aggressive inflexion in her voice: "They care! They care!"

And care they do. Captain Johnson and his volunteers - the retired supermarket manager, the housewife, the occupational therapist, the vicar's wife, the surveyor and the housing association manager - trundle their elderly vehicles through London late at night with only a good conscience for compensation. They also agonise about whether they are really doing their best for the men and women they hope to help.

The idea that they might be keeping people on the streets rather than encouraging them to struggle for something better, worried them long before Louise Casey gave fashionable credence to the notion. But they decided what must be obvious to anyone who has spent time in the front line of the battle against homelessness. The choice is not between getting the men and women off the streets or leaving them to live rough. It is between letting them rot in their own inadequacies and doing the little that is possible to make their lives more tolerable.