For years you have passed them on the streets, as much a part of your routine as your morning shower, your half-hearted scan of the world’s news – fake or otherwise – and the barista who artistically crafts the £4 cappuccino with soya milk, three drops of vanilla, and a flutter of chocolate sprinkles that has to be made just right or it throws your day off in ways that nobody understands.
You see them as often as you see your own family. The disenfranchised. The rough sleepers. The homeless. Camped out and befouling the sidewalks and alleyways of your daily commute, their worldly possessions, such as they are, spread around them – as dirty and worn out as the sleepers themselves, but as valuable to them as your £100 brogues are to you.
Occasionally you get the urge to throw some loose change at them as a gesture of magnanimous humanity, but when push comes to shove you would rather tip the honest, hard-working barista who ensures your day gets off to a proper start. Better to support the successful rather than throw good money after bad trying to keep the great unwashed afloat.
You have conditioned yourself to look through them – allowing your eyes to pass over them without actually seeing them. A defeated acceptance of lives gone wrong; uncomfortable reminders of what can happen when the best laid plans of mice and men go horribly awry.
“Thank god I’m not like them,” you think, sipping your £4 cup of liquid gold. “I could never let that happen to me.”
Until suddenly – inexplicably – it does. And you discover the life you have built was nothing more than a house of cards that crashed down around you with frightening ease. A spate of bad luck, a poor decision or two, and the ubiquitous “circumstances beyond your control” conspire to create a perfect storm of events that leaves you cast away on the streets feeling dazed, disjointed, and damned.
“This is wrong,” you think. “I’m not like them.”
You don’t sleep the first night, nor the second. You wander aimlessly – a rucksack over your shoulder and a suitcase trundling behind you. Your remaining worldly possessions – a few shirts, socks, underwear, and toiletries – as valuable to you now as your £100 brogues were mere days before.
Your mind, unable to process the enormity of your new world order, shuts down. Time crawls to the rhythm of your slow shuffle. You pass through your surroundings with the same unseeing stare you once reserved only for your fellow rough sleepers. You are unable to say where you’ve been; where you’re going; or what you are doing. You no longer lay claim to the right of moving from Point A to Point B. Your journey has no point. Your life no longer has a point.
As realisation gains an ugly foothold, denial goes into overdrive. This isn’t really happening. It’s a mistake. A hiccup. A very bad dream. Click your heels three times and chant, “There’s no place like home” and all will be right with the world again.
But there are no wizards in the real world – you no longer have a home. Yet the fantasy of denial continues to entice with each stubborn wave of its magic wand….
…. until physical reality creeps in and breaks it.
Your body does its best to adapt to your new circumstances, but fights a losing battle. Your sleep pattern changes – slipping away from the doctor approved eight hours per night to a restless series of two hour micro-naps scattered across a 24 hour cycle.
You make a valiant effort to stay clean and presentable, but it too proves to be a battle you are destined to lose. You master the unique and time consuming art of public toilet bathing: hiding in a stall in your underwear waiting for the facilities to clear, dashing to the sinks for a splash of water and squirt of soap, then dashing back to the stall to wash one body part at a time. Invariably, someone catches you mid-dash and you wince at the look of sheer contempt they throw in your direction. It’s a look you grow to know well.
Despite your efforts, toilet bathing is a poor substitute for showering in the comfort of your own home. You grow increasingly unkempt; your clothes start to smell “well-worn”; and your skin begins to itch – a foreshadowing of the rashes that will soon follow.
Your limbs start to ache from the burden of endlessly wandering with your life hanging off your back. Your shoulders stiffen. Your legs seize up. Your knees become hubs of throbbing pain. And your feet – dear god your feet – nothing in life prepares you for the hell your feet inflict on you.
Your soles grow tender from the never-ending pounding of the pavement. Callouses form, then split, leaving ridges of sharp agony that sting with every step. Blisters develop and burst. Your toes, confined to such tight quarters for such an unnatural length of time, begin to itch. And burn. The skin between them softens, then splits, adding the moisture of blood and pus to the itching, burning mess.
“It can’t get any worse,” you promise yourself.
The promise breaks. It gets worse.
One of the wheels on your suitcase breaks, and you discover just what it means to be a slave to your possessions – your only possessions – the pathetic final reminders of your once perfect life. Your overtaxed body is forced to add the weight of the suitcase to its already painful burden. You switch hands frequently, but both arms quickly succumb to the dead weight of your life dragging them down. The callouses that plaque your feet spread to your palms with the same devastating effects. Your world shrinks even further as you are forced to confine your activities, such as they are, to one small area because the pain of movement becomes too great to bear.
The nights grow colder. Your body, weakened by lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, and lack of comfort develops a deep, set-in-your-bones chill that even the warmth of day can’t erase. You are assaulted by random bouts of shivering that attack without warning, day and night. Your mind begins to flirt with the darkest of thoughts, contemplating the final option that would guarantee an end to your misery. But still, somehow, you soldier on.
Then the final, unthinkable, horror strikes. In the wee dark hours of the morning you are woken by the call of nature – demanding more than the usual urinary sacrifice. The luxury of a common toilet is denied you as the public conveniences are closed until the first light of day. You pray with a conviction never felt before that you can wait it out. But nature will not be denied. Discomfort turns to pain, and you realise there is only one humiliating option available.
You scan your immediate surroundings for a discrete make-shift lavatory. Nature itself provides the solution with dark irony and you select a clump of bushes that will provide the minimum of privacy. Zombie-like, you make your way to the place of ultimate humiliation, furtively scanning the sidewalks and roadways for any unwanted passers-by. You slowly take your position, and with a self-loathing you have never known, void your bowels like a common animal – the most basic of bodily functions regressing you to your most bestial nature.
You make your way back to the bench that serves as your bed with the indignity of your actions fresh in your mind. Your body aches. Your feet itch, burn, sting. A fresh wave of shivering strikes. You shake uncontrollably. Your teeth chatter. Finally, you break. Tears explode from your eyes, mixing with the phlegm that streams through your nose. Your breath heaves in deep wailing gasps. There are no wizards in the real world – you no longer have a home.
“This is wrong,” you splutter. “I’m not like them.”
“I’m not that strong.”
Somehow you survive the night. You find yourself hovering around one of the city shelters set up to help those the city has rejected; your preconceived notions preventing you from taking that final step.
“I’m going to be robbed, drugged, and sodomised,” you argue, “While the staff holds hands in a sharing circle quoting Bible verses and singing ‘Kumbaya’; oblivious to the scum and villainy that surrounds them. I’m better off on the streets. I’m not like them.”
Then a fresh wave of shivering starts and you find yourself crossing the threshold, wanting nothing more than a few scant moments of warmth. The warmth you receive is not the warmth you were expecting, and you find yourself momentarily surprised. The staff treat you with a dignity and respect you had forgotten you deserve. They listen to the story of your fall with interest and empathy. You search their eyes for a hint of judgement; but search in vain. They treat you not like a category or statistic, but an actual living, breathing human being. And the biggest surprise is yet to come.
Your fellow occupants admit you into their ranks without question. The very people you once dehumanised as generic “Homeless” see the human in you. They offer a hand of acceptance that you haltingly, hypocritically take because you’re still not quite prepared to grant the same in return. Until, despite yourself, you start to see the human in them.
The earth mother that shines through the wreckage of drug addiction, one of the first to welcome you, makes you feel comfortable; she makes sure everyone gets their fair share when volunteers pass through bringing warm meals and clothing.
The father figure that surfaces through the haze of chronic alcoholism –forbidden from contact from his own children, yet willing to share his wisdom –offering support, advice, and a guiding hand to those newly fallen into this strange new world.
The military veteran, scarred by the mental and emotional wounds of seeing things no one should ever see in the field of battle, who takes a protective of view of his new “troop” and is the first to come to the defence of the weak and bullied.
The refugee who came to a new country lured by the promise of a better life only to discover the promises were nothing more than empty flights of fancy designed to profit the unscrupulous. Yet he maintains an infectious optimism that life will get better if you keep trying.
You have fallen into the only truly inclusive group of people in the history of civilisation. The story of everyone’s fall is unique, and can’t be brushed away with dehumanising labels. There is no segregation; no discrimination; no distinction based on race, religion, skin colour, gender, sexuality, or age. Everyone is welcome to fall; and many do. Homelessness is the great equaliser, with many entrances but few exits. Sadly far too many in society focus on the causes of the fall, and not the solutions to bring these fallen angels back to the paradise they have lost.
This is wrong.
Down and Out: Live is on from 2-6pm on Wednesday 6 June at Stone Nest, Charing Cross Road. Visitors can drop in and out and are encouraged to bring a sleeping bag to sit on and then leave for homeless charities. You can live stream it here.
There will be testimonies and readings from people at The Connection, YMCA and Centre-point. The project was set up by UCL, The Orwell Foundation and Libby Brodie Productions and is part of UCL Festival of Culture.
It will also be screened at:
- Poole Central Library
- Grants Hill Library
- Fulwell Cross Library
- Kidderminster Libraries
- Idea Store Whitechapel
- Jersey Library
- Winchester Discovery Centre
- Glasgow Libraries
The following panel discussion will follow Down and Out: Live Homelessness and Rough Sleeping in London: What are the Policy Solutions? | 18:30 - 20:00 | Stone Nest, Shaftesbury Avenue