Secret worlds of those who live on the streets
We pass them every day but few of us take the time to see the story behind the homeless person. A new book seeks to recitify that
08 November, 2018 — By Peter Gruner
Melissa, who dreams of becoming an actress, sleeps outside a West End theatre
AN insightful new book highlights the plight of the homeless and reminds us that today even the most happily secure could one day find themselves living on the street.
TV researcher Tamsen Courtenay, based in Highbury, explored the darker reaches of the capital, including Camden and Islington, for her book Four Feet Under: Thirty Untold Stories of Homelessness in London.
In one incident she describes how she was interviewing a homeless group in Villiers Street, close to the Embankment, when they were set upon by a drunk man in a business suit for no apparent reason.
“He stumbled towards us,” she writes, “brandishing a long piece of wood and shouting abuse. Suddenly there he was towering over us and battering us.”
She suffered leg bruises for some time afterwards.
Her passionate sense of injustice is a reminder of Sally Trench, who in the 1960s aged 16 went to live with people on the street and wrote the seminal book Bury Me In My Boots.
Using a tape recorder Tamsen was determined to listen to people’s stories rather than judge them. She meets former publican Patrick O’Neil in Covent Garden. Patrick is in his 40s, with degrees in languages and a “ghastly consumptive cough”.
He tells how he used to run a pub in Folkstone, which became quieter and quieter. Then the brewery doubled the weekly rent, the pub was starting to go down, and trade slacked off. In the end he lost both his job and home.
About living on the street, he says: “I don’t mind the cold. I grew up in Ireland on top of a bloody mountain and that’s cold.”
Tamsen asks her readers who have warm homes, friends, family and jobs to imagine having no roof over your head, no walls and no privacy. “Now it’s just you and the rubble of your life.”
She describes Camden on a bad day – after the homeless have just been moved out of King’s Cross to allow for redevelopment – as like being on the stage in a “Hieronymus Bosch Hellscape – The Musical.”
One morning she tried to count the numbers of homeless people. “I stopped counting when I reached 150. There were more than 20 people sleeping in Charing Cross station alone.”
She meets Melissa, 21, who dreams of becoming an actress. She sleeps outside Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, home to Phantom of the Opera. It’s Melissa’s favourite show and she only goes inside the theatre to watch the musical on the rare occasions she can afford it.
Then there’s Scott, a former coach driver who drove top football players around Europe. Shortly before he was due to have his medical he lost his home. With no address he couldn’t work.
The day-to-day efforts to keep oneself well are not helped by being at “exhaust level”. Tamsen began to suspect that her permanent headache and generally feeling unwell might have something to do with London’s appalling traffic pollution.
Treacle, the dog
She hates the term “rough sleeper”.
“It makes homelessness sound vaguely optional or worse, as if the homeless are nothing more than feckless outward-bound extremists.”
We meet Brad, a former painter and decorator who has fallen on hard times. He says he lived in a half a million pound house before getting divorced. Then he developed knee problems and couldn’t work. He sells the Big Issue and says: “I’m tired all the time now. But it has taught me I can survive anywhere.”
Manu was hard to miss. Anyone who visits the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square will remember him.
He draws colourful chalk flags on the pavement that attracts lots of passing admirers. He even gets the children to draw and there’s usually lots of laughter around him.
Then there’s Edward, 37, who lives in a tent behind a bush in Regent’s Park. He has a degree in marine biology, a diploma in music technology and a Buddhist philosophy which he says helps keep him sane.
He says: “For me being homeless isn’t so much a barrier as a way to free myself from all the things that are going to tie me down – council tax, rent and things I don’t need.”
Tamsen learned that a disproportionate number of soldiers and war veterans end up living on the street. Often they are victims of highly traumatic experiences.
“We control our destinies. Maybe. But only to a point. How many times have you made a rubbish choice or decision and seriously regretted it?
“Many homeless people are hopeless and chaotic, with no idea how to manage their day-to-day lives, never mind thinking about how to move forward.”
• Four Feet Under: Thirty Untold Stories of Homelessness in London. By Tamsen Courtenay, £20.