The idea of a beggar having an Audi isn't actually that shocking - or unlikely

Shelter in 2013 found that 8 million Britons were just one pay cheque away from losing their homes - and I met a woman once who proved that

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The Independent Online

Have you been subjected to a social media rant about the “Audi beggar” yet? A video of a young man, who reportedly spends his days begging in Newquay, getting into a shiny Audi TT – retail value £30,000 – has emerged, and it is circulating the internet faster than particles around the hadron collider at CERN.

Local residents were appalled to discover that the man they have handed their loose change to, in the hope of playing the Good Samaritan, might actually have been a charlatan. Many thousands more who have never even seen the bloke are outraged on their behalf.

What nobody has stopped to consider that (whatever the truth in this bizarre case, in which the beggar claims the car was a gift from his grandmother) it is possible to have the trappings of wealth and yet to have nothing. 

The tale of riches to rags is far more common than its alternative, and could happen to almost any of us. Only the most exceptionally wealthy are immune from the risk of losing everything, and fast.

Research by housing charity Shelter in 2013 found that 8 million Britons were just one pay cheque away from losing their homes. A year later, 4 million British homeowners – relatively well off, by global standards - were calculated to be only one pay cheque from being unable to pay their mortgage. Many, many more of us are just two or three pay days from the street. And when life crumbles quickly, there are symbols and tokens of wealth that remain long after security has been stripped away.

When I was a trainee reporter in the early 2000s, I spent a couple of years covering homelessness. During that time I met a woman who had watched her wealthy middle class existence fall down around her. A chief executive of a company with a good income and a company car, she struggled after the breakdown of her marriage. She turned to alcohol, and in doing so lost her job and her home. All she had left, in the last weeks, was the company car – a BMW, yet to be returned – in which she slept.

I’m not suggesting that the Newquay beggar is necessarily such a victim of circumstance – how could I possibly know? – but merely that it is arrogance that make us jump to the immediate conclusion that the man in the viral video, a beggar with a decent car, couldn’t possibly be in dire straits.

Figures released by the government last week showed that the number of rough sleepers has doubled in the past five years. Of course, the loss of a job or a marriage break up alone is rarely enough to provoke the unravelling of a life: most stories of security to street sleeping reveal a catalogue of crises befallen at once, and usually involve an underlying addiction or mental health problem, too. But few can consider themselves immune to the risk of such a significant loss.

How could that possibly happen, you might ask of the CEO bedding down in a ‘Beamer’? The answer is: remarkably easily. And, unless you’re wealthy enough to never work again, it could happen to you too.