The credit crunch. Again. For hell’s sake, stop banging on about it. We know, all is lost- everyone will lose their jobs, pensions, family pets. We are all going to face abject poverty with only a tarpaulin to keep the rain off our attempts at slumber as we cradle down in some Waterloo alleyway.
You see the charity pictures of drained phantoms huddled hopelessly into their fraying sleeping-sacks, holes in their shoes and a soul sucked dry from endless nights on the street. That will be us.
After hearing a statistic from the Council of Mortgage Lenders that home repossessions are going to soar to 75 000 this year, I decided to taste homelessness for a week to discover how one could survive in the capitol with no money, job, contacts or place to stay.
It may become a reality for some. Research by homeless charity Crisis tells us 1 in 10 people are struggling to keep up with their rents / mortgage payments and a YouGov poll recently found that 41% of people questioned know someone who has recently lost their job. The charity Simon Community said in November that the number sleeping rough in London had nearly doubled in the proceeding six months, blaming the figures in part on the economic downturn.
The Pavement, a monthly magazine for and about the homeless, said that in February, Alan Gibb from the West Midlands was found living in a tent near a bypass after losing his job and being evicted from his home. Stories like this are going to become more frequent in the next few months.
The week began on a Monday morning, when I handed over my Oyster card, my phone and spare change to Louise, the Who’s Jack editor. I had 5 pairs of socks, toothbrush and paste, spare t-shirt, notebook and pen, and a harmonica for busking- all in a rucksack- a sleeping bag and the clothes I was wearing.
I mulled over what a week is. 168 hours. 21 meals. £280 if you work 40 hours at £7 ph. About 35 cups of tea. About 90 hours of darkness at the time of year (beginning of March). And the potential to rain, snow and hail tigers and flippin’ hyenas. “Would this be hard? Am I going to freeze, starve and get foot leprosy?”
I headed to Booth House- a Salvation Army hostel on Whitechapel Road. I was undercover, so had to spin a story about losing my job and getting kicked out of my girlfriend’s Southampton flat. “I hit the bottle and did things to that forced me to leave town.” The manageress told me they were full but “Please take a copy of The Pavement- there’s a list of shelters and drop in centres that could help you.”
“The List” in The Pavement told me everything. 14 places dotted around town were listed as offering free food and many others sold it cheaply. There were places to shower, have your eyes tested, get a haircut or free change of clothes, do the laundry. The List goes on. I was flabbergasted. The facilities for the homeless in the capitol are fantastic.
The first night and two others were spent under a pentice on Leather Lane, just off Holborn Circus. I had met Luciano in the Holy Cross Centre in King’s Cross (a club mainly for recovering addicts where there is a T.V, pool table, internet, free food and a relaxed, social atmosphere). He had been on and off the streets for seven years and told me over coffee that light, open areas are better to sleep in than dark doorways or alleys- you can see people coming and can easily run away if needs must.
Each night on Leather Lane was comfortable, wrapped in sleeping bag and clothes, lying on cardboard. The night cradled in some Waterloo alleyway was also ok, but I did wake up a couple of times to voices squabbling aggressively in a council estate that was, fortunately, the other side of a wall and locked gate.
One night was nearly sleepless- I made the dumb decision to kip in London Fields. It was chilly and dewy-damp on the soil and a fox tried to piss on me in the night.
The easiest night was in the Russell Square flat of Mini- one of the volunteers at The Holy Cross Centre. She is 56 and has been on the streets for 40 years, most of that time a junkie. She came from a good background but ran away from home at 16, got into drugs and settled into a life of scoring and stealing. She cleaned up and sorted her flat only 18 weeks ago. An amazing woman- generous, determined and strong. She has helped out others on the street with a place to live and said I could stay full time for a tenner or so a week.
Before the week began I thought this article would be a write-up of a touch-and-go experience, where I’d be hungry, exhausted, and possibly attacked. Far from it. People were polite and incredibly helpful. When I asked the manager of the Gray’s Inn Road Coffee Republic if I could use the toilet he said: “Of course” and as I left: “Have you eaten today?” I said no but no matter as I would buy a fry-up in the Whitechapel Mission for 50p. He took a hot bacon and scrambled egg ciabatta out the microwave: “I didn’t wrap it as I thought you’d want to eat it on the go.”
A man handing out flyers in Camden gave me four quid for finishing the half hour job. The Crisis Centre on Commercial Street let me use internet and offered free painting classes, bike maintenance, music lessons and more.
Outreach workers in the Dellow Centre on Wentworth Street, Aldgate, put me in touch with reps from Emmaus- a scheme where those homeless willing and able to work are given a flat-share and £35 p/w for working five from seven days on furniture repair. They said it would take a maximum of two weeks to organise but then I would have a job and stable shelter. They said the longest a mentally healthy person with no addictions would be on the streets in London for is 21 days.
So the nights were easy and the days were fine- free food, hygiene and enough sleep. There was a lot of walking and that is about it. My experience on the street was an easy one.
Clearly mine is not the reality. I knew I could finish when I felt and I had a life beyond the street. In this sense I was not vulnerable. Luciano had said: “It’s easy to get into drink and drugs when you know you’re stuck on the street for even a couple of weeks. The temptation’s all around and they help you sleep and feel safe.”
The boredom and alienation surely encourage inebriation. Also, the endless queues for charity can dent confidence. They can make destiny feel out of your control and forces a meekness. Some people are proud, leading them to crime for food.
Still, I found it reassuring to know that, should you become homeless, it would not take too long before your life is back on track.
Next month I will explore why some people find it so difficult to get off the streets.