It is a warm April morning, the first of its kind for a few weeks in London town. As most people are packing a picnic and heading to sun drenched parks, I am not.
In the words of Adrian Brody: “I think to be a well-rounded person, you have to experience good and bad, wonderful moments and pain. You need to meet people who have no exposure to kindness, who lack any opportunity and have no way out – like the homeless, the mentally ill – and you’ve got to learn empathy for them.”
As a social experiment to form the basis of this article, today I spent the day at London Bridge Station pretending to be a homeless person. I forgot that I was pretending very quickly. I did this because homelessness is a taboo subject that is never spoken about, just constantly ignored. Maybe my heart is too big, but I put myself in their shoes because I care. I hope that from this article I might be able to change the way that we (don’t) look at the growing issue of homeless in the UK that affects over 4,000 people every year.
When I woke up I didn’t brush my hair, shower, or put on nice clean clothes. I put on a pair of black leggings with a hole in the knee which I had smeared mud up the legs. A pair of battered running trainers that desperately need replacing. I zipped up a black hoody with a rain mac over the top. Can never be too sure with British weather! I had my keys and a £5 note hidden in my pocket and I walked out the door to experience it for myself.
The journey to Homelessness
As soon as I step on the tube I feel judged. I was the rough in the diamond amongst the polished commuters on the morning rush hour into the city. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks to highlight my discomfort at the situation. I didn’t have any of the comforts of everyday life: make up, money or a mobile phone. I had no mask to hide behind. Without any of these things, I started to forget my identity very quickly and started shrinking into my shadow with every questioning glance that came my way.
By the time I arrive at London Bridge, I already want to turn back. My excitement to dive head first into gonzo journalism had been replaced by fear, vulnerability and shame, in the short space of 33 minutes.
I had £2.40 in my pocket, not enough to go back home, and a friend coming to find me at lunchtime to check up on me. I didn’t want to sit down as there were police roaming around the station like bees, so I stood for a while to contemplate what to do. I walk outside of the station and onto a sunny side street that I decide will do, at least there was sunshine.
Welcome to The Street
I wait for the road to clear and eventually sit down. The pavement is uncomfortable. After about ten minutes of being walked past and ignored I am starting to feel sorry for myself. This must have been obvious, as a man tells me in passing to be strong and that things will be ok. “Don’t let them break you,” he repeats twice before going into the station. After this I feel incredibly sad, and I think this isn’t fair for anyone to have to experience.
The Police find me soon after this and I tell them my story. They sit down with me and we talk about homelessness in London. The say that most people in fact chose to be on the streets as it is better than the drug filled homeless shelters in London, where you are more likely to be beaten and robbed than find a way out. They tell me I will learn a lot from my day and wish me well, leaving me to face the streets alone.
Sitting on the ground I get fidgety and don’t know what to do. I can’t bring myself to look up from the floor. I adopted the logic of a small child, perhaps as a defence mechanism; that if I can’t see them then they can’t see me, and it works! I do in-fact become invisible, save for this pen and being able to write down what I am thinking which reminds me that I am actually a person. I am ashamed of myself and I haven’t made eye contact with any of the passers by, only the policemen and the man who tried to help me. I don’t know why as I have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s surprising how quickly you forget that you are pretending and can that you can walk away at any time.
It was strange experience, opting to be homeless. It’s like entering a different world as soon as you lower yourself to sitting on the cold pavement. Being physically below everyone else, it is as if automatically you become looked down upon as a person, and become a failure. This is a very strange phenomenon, as I could stand up at any moment and look like a very scruffy teenager. I would be relieved of the mental strain that sitting on the ground brings. These thoughts probably pass through the minds of hundreds of homeless people everyday, yet we never hear them.
I have no notion of time, but I am wishing it away. I start counting feet to pass the time after what I guess has been just over hour. I am becoming increasingly depressed. It is a quiet period as I play my game. I get up to 139 feet, one toddler and four pushchairs. What’s funny is that out of all of these people, it was only the children that would look me in the eyes from their prams because I was directly in their eye line. I saw confusion in most of their small faces, and it made me ask, why as we get older, do we become products of social conditioning? Why do we let society set the behaviour and responses that we show towards other human beings?
All the coffee cups, handbags, mobile phones, cigarettes that we carry are really just barriers that society has created to stop us seeing what is important in life. At this point my mood has changed from sadness to anger at the situation. Perhaps it’s because I am getting hungry. A large group of school kids walk past me and I wonder what they think when they see me, just a few years older than them and desolate on the streets.
The kind stranger
In my third hour, a builder from across the road comes over to me and asks if I’m okay. I tell him yes and he asks if I would like a cup of tea. I say no, but thank you and he goes back to work. He comes back and gives me a £5 note and tells me to get something to eat and drink. I tell him I am ok, really, and about the project. He grins and says that he couldn’t do it himself, and to keep the money incase I want anything. For the next hour or so that I decide to stay there, he keeps watch over me and from the whole experience, his kindness just about saved my faith in humanity.
Of all the people who passed me today, rich business folk in suits with change rattling audibly in their pockets, it was a builder who cared enough to stop working and offer me a little of his lunch money to get myself something to eat.
To quote George Orwell from Down and Out in London and Paris: “At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor refuse a flyer, nor enjoy a meal at a small restaurant. That is a beginning.”
Of course homelessness and rough sleeping are far more complex than simply putting yourself on the street one day, but I hope that after having read this that you may think twice about homelessness. Even just a few kind words or some spare change can make a big difference to somebody’s day. Homelessness can happen to any one of us at any time under certain circumstances. I believed I would be able to last a whole day, I predicted eight to twelve hours, but I only lasted for three. It might be classed as a feeble attempt but I couldn’t bear to go back to that spot or mind-set when my friend came and found me. I felt defeated. I had bags hit me, people step on my toes, and almost a cigarette burn my face. I was invisible save for 5 people in those three hours who stopped to ask if I was okay. Next time you see a homeless person on the street, imagine if it was you.