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Highbury author who gave rough sleepers a voice: I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before

"Invisibility was one of the agonies of all the homeless people," says author

21 September, 2018 — By Emily Finch


WHILE sitting down and chatting to a group of homeless people bedding down for the night, Tamsen Courtenay was beaten by a smart-looking man in a suit.

This was just one of the insults the Highbury author witnessed from well-heeled passersby while collecting stories of those who call the streets their home for her new book Four Feet Under.

“For the first time this book has allowed people a chance to listen in on their world and what their life is like,” said Ms Courtenay. “I’m surprised it’s never been done before.”

The author spent years working as an investigative reporter on the BBC’s Panorama and Channel Four’s Dispatches but believed television wasn’t doing enough to drive social change.

With a camera in a plastic bag and a cheap recorder, Ms Courtenay started to document the lives of everyone she met on the street who was willing to talk.

There is Beth who turned to crystal meth after being raped “so many times I can’t even count”. Then Edward who lives in a tent in Regent’s Park and spends his spare time counting eels for the Zoological Society. There are also life stories of those who live on the streets near Ms Courtenay’s Drayton Park home.

“I wanted to know who they were. The homeless population of Britain is portrayed as if they are one homogenous group. They are no more homogenous than people who work at an office. They have different stories and qualities,” she said. Ms Courtenay believes all homeless people have one thing in common.

She said: “Invisibility was one of the agonies of all the homeless people. They are not acknowledged. Week by week people don’t look down and see, they don’t want to see, and when they do look down they don’t acknowledge what they see. People have no idea what it’s like to be breathing, and to be alive but you’re not seen for the majority of the time.”

She added: “Do what you can for them, give money to them. It’s not for you to decide what the homeless spend the money on. They have needs whether that’s food or drugs. If they have an addiction to heroin and they don’t take it when they need to they can get very, very sick and suffer from a terrible physical pain. Imagine suffering through that on the high street. If you don’t have money or time to get them food, the least you can do is give them a smile.”

Ms Courtenay, who now spends the majority of the year living in central Italy, said she didn’t set out to create a campaigning book but blamed the “catastrophic” failings in mental health facilities and social housing for the rise in homelessness.

“The idea they have chosen this life is ridiculous,” she said. Four Feet Under: Thirty Untold Stories of Homelessness in London is published by Unbound and out now.

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