On one Saturday in London about a month ago, I had three different encounters with homeless people. The people I met have stayed with me. I wanted to remember them as I saw them. I have added a link to donate to St Mungo's Charity here and at the end if you so wish. x
She comes on apologising. Shuffling down the centre of the train, clutching two grey plastic bags stuffed with clothes. Her trousers hang precariously from the sharp edges of her hip bones, exposing several inches of boxer shorts. The skin on her face is pale and pockmarked with a varnished sheen.
I’m so sorry to bother you, I really am I know you’re just going about your day but my name's Chelsea and I don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight.
As her words arrive, flat in tone, her head wobbles on her neck and she lays her hand on her cheek as if to steady it. I hand her some coins.
Here you go. Have you somewhere to sleep tonight?
She seems distressed now. Her eyes flit up and down the carriage.
Yeah but its sixteen pounds fifty I still need so much and it takes so fucking long to get it.
Well you’re on your way now. I say. Where’s the hostel?
She replies. In the second it takes me to register that we are going in the opposite direction to Cricklewood, she starts to cry. She shakes her head at the ground, wiping at her tears with her forearm.
I’m sorry for crying she says, its rare for me, it’s just that I’m so fucking tired I just want a bath.
Of course. Of course you do.
I say, as if I know well how it feels to beg on a train with all my worldly possessions in two Waitrose bags. I watch her as she shuffles further down the carriage, giving a wide birth to a gawping toddler in a buggy. She says her piece again in the next carriage and gets nothing. It is slow progress. Five minutes later I am back in my book. When I get off at Hampstead Heath station I see her further up the platform, making her way slowly towards the steps. I catch up with her and ask
How did you do?
I got 70p.
As we walk up the steps I hand her a note in my wallet. I point across the tracks to platform 2.
You can go straight to that other platform and go back to Cricklewood.
She is looking at the note in her hand. Mapping and it all out in her head.
I’ll go to West Hampstead and then get the Thames link to Cricklewood.
I say, but at the top of the steps she follows me towards the turnstiles and the exit.
I just need to have a cigarette first.
And sure enough there is a cigarette bent between the two fingers of her right hand. She slips in behind me to jump the gates. The ticket guy knows her.
You have to stop doing this, he says. I’m going to call the police on you.
She’s just having a cigarette, I say, and then she’s going to Cricklewood to the hostel. She needs a bath. Please can you let her back in?
He shakes his head in disappointment at us. I doubt myself then. She is going to find her next hit. Of course she is. I turn to her and she asks.
Do you have a light ?
No. But I hope you can go back there and get a good rest and a bath, you always feel better after a bath. Bye now.
As I walk across the road she shouts
I turn back. She is standing in a pool of sunlight, looking all the more wretched against the brilliant rainbow colours of the fruit stall.
I bring my sons to their favourite playground. It’s in a small pocket of green hidden in the middle of The Avenues; an estate of identikit red brick Edwardian houses situated just North of the Harrow road. The park has an outdoor gym, a basketball park, a rose garden, a campfire area for school kids and a playground. Like London, so much functionality crammed into a small space. At the playground, we head straight for the big climbing frame. It’s a tall structure with hanging ropes and a slide and a tunnel, suspended in the air between two platforms, just wide enough for a child to crawl through. I push my son around in circles on a spinning standing swing just under the tunnel, as my other son makes his way around the top platform towards us. I turn to check on him and see, just above my eye level, a pair of black nike air max, placed neatly beside each other outside the tunnel. They are adult sized shoes. Maybe someone is leaving them for someone else to pick up and they think this is a safe space? My youngest son has reached us now and is looking down at me.
Mum I can’t go into the tunnel because of the man.
I say and crane my neck to see up into the tunnel. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust to the light and to see the ruches and stains on the white colour I see dominating the tunnel. It is the white of a coverless duvet. Then I see the head at the far end. The man wears a cap which shadows his face. I realise that he is propped up on his elbows looking out at my son and I, waiting for us to leave him be. I feel the frustration in his silence. In my shock I usher my sons away,
Come on. The man is trying to sleep.
We move to the other side of the playground. The park is busy now; kids on scooters, parents with buggies, a group of teenagers filming something in the corner. I walk back to the climbing frame to look into the tunnel from the opposite direction. I see the man’s capped head wrapped up in the cushion of white. He’s lying down again. I wonder does he manage to sleep in there? Or is he wide awake, just hiding from the world.
Later that evening, I answer a ring at my door. A man stands on the doorstep, fiddling with a rucksack. His hair is grey, his face is masked. He is talking, with a slight West Country accent, as I open the door.
I’m sorry I’m not your usual person selling tea towels but I am selling something you see I’m on this program and I’m homeless and…
Yes, well I got a place there when Covid hit and I’ve managed to stay in it but the problem is you don’t know when you’re going to get kicked out it could be anytime, so I’m on the list for a permanent place.
His words slide over each other, and as he speaks I catch the faint whiff of alcohol hanging in the air between us. He fiddles with his bag and takes out Tupperware, one box inside the next inside the next.
So here it is,
He says turning it around for me to see.
Not the usual stuff
I think of the nightly string of curses that come out of my mouth when I rummage around in the kitchen trying to find a lid to fit a box for the school lunches. I buy two sets of boxes from him.
I say. I wave him off and he waves back, swinging his bag over his shoulder as he walks out the gate.
I stand at the door and listen as he walks into my neighbour’s house and rings the door. Is this how we live now I think. Three homeless people in one day. Slipped through the cracks and so sorry. So sorry about it all. With the click of the latch he starts again.
Hello, so sorry I’m selling this stuff you see, I’m homeless…
You can donate to St Mungo's Charity here if you so wish.