My experience of living on the street for only a week was an easy one. I was well fed, clean and I got enough sleep. But I wanted to find out why some people find themselves unable to get out of their situation and onto some kind of ladder of progress. In an East London park I found some answers. By no means are they representative of many homeless people: they do not touch on mental health problems, issues with language and immigration or any other reasons over what they are. But this is what I got from a couple of hours talking.
There was Buzz, 37, Chalky, 41, and Quicksand, 26, and me with them sharing a mid-afternoon drink.
Not undercover this time, my cards were on the table and they knew my agenda. To get to know these homeless folk and learn why they are still on the streets when the city’s facilities appear so accommodating. I had found through sleeping rough that the longest a healthy and ambitious person should be on the streets of London for is only about 25 days.
Buzz, Chalky and “Quicks” did not look healthy and if they had much ambition they must have been keeping it private. “We are not well, you might say,” said Chalky, before closing the sentence with his’ “Heheheh!”. “We drink, it’s what we do, our thing you might say.”
Chalky, the most articulate and open of the three, gave his story with little prompting. “I’ve a missus and my three girls living over in Shepherd’s Bush. I still see ‘em every couple of weeks or so. We all get on fine, you know, but it’s best not to see too much of each other. It’s the fuckin’ booze- I say things I’ll regret.”
He told me how he used to be a successful amateur boxer in his early twenties. He trained in one of the East End’s famous gyms, Repton, and was about to turn pro when he had a motorbike accident and shattered his left leg. He started drinking and the rest is a hazy plummeting of fights, hangovers, social security cheques and booze-numbed regret.
“I won’t be getting off the streets any time soon. I’ve been trying on and off for seven years, but I’m the bars of my own cage. I won’t allow myself to get out of this situation ‘cos I keep fuckin’ up and drinking away my chances. I don’t last in a hostel for long before they chuck me out.”
He keeps himself reasonably hygienic, using the drop-in centres like the Whitechapel Mission on Whitechapel Road to shower, shave and brush up. Many of the centres hand out free clothing on a daily basis and have washing machines.
“The cold and wet nights are obviously a pain, but you get kinda used to them. Sometimes I get to kip on the sofa in a mate’s house, but mostly I bed down in my sleeping bag. I stay up on Kingsland Road most nights.”
Quicksand’s drinking mates nicknamed him because of his stark self-destructive streak. They say he will keep sinking down until he kills himself. Defensive and confrontational, he kept smirking and then looking nervously at Chalky and Buzz for help whenever I asked him a question.
“’Cos I ain’t got no home, do I,” he said when I asked why he is on the streets. After some pushing, he conceded: “I can’t really be bothered with them hostels. The people there tell you you’ve gotta have your lights out at a certain time, not shout about. It’s like prison or something.” It is clear he is the kind of person who does not know how to compromise. When being tried for ABH in 2001, he called the judge a, “Fucking dingbat” in the courtroom. No doubt that extended his 100 day prison sentence.
Buzz, like Chalky and Quicksand, likes a drink. But he is trying to keep a lid on it and, counter-intuitively, that is why he chooses not to stay in a hostel. “Too much temptation,” he says. And to be fair he kept sober in the park, drinking only one can of Strongbow. “I also don’t claim benefits. I know what I’ll spend the money on if I do. I just get by, surviving rough and trying not to drink. I also volunteer at a couple of the day centres. I like to keep busy.”
Chalky, buoyant, Quicks, nervous, Buzz, sober and I drunk our cider and talked sport a while. Chalky closed the get together: “Right ho, we better go. Gotta see a man about a dog. You know. Heheheh!”