On a Saturday night, London’s streets are transformed into a stage with a spotlight being turned on the everyday actors of little tragedies, big comedies, promising romances. Scenes can be fleeting, almost unnoticeable; or they play out on centre stage – the main act – with the rest of the world being turned into the enthralled audience waiting for the big finish.
On the side-lines, separate, smaller plays seem to run their course. Unnoticed by the majority. They tell of the stories too many people don’t want to hear about; the stories of the thousands of homeless people on the streets of London.
I cannot remember the first time I sat down to listen, or why; but I remember that I couldn’t stop listening afterwards. The people I talked to opened the world to me; no school could have brought me better teachers.
Their stories were as different as life could make them and yet, they were so heartbreakingly similar.
One man told me he had been living on the streets for over 40 years. Since he was 17 years old. After his single mom had died unexpectedly whilst he had been away in a summer camp. It should have been a happy, untroubled time; instead it became the moment that derailed his life. There was no help for him from anybody. No family to turn to. No state support system offering assistance. Only a mortgage he did not know how to pay. And so he lost the house. In his grief and desperation he was not able to continue his school, or find a job. Only a child, he found himself on the streets.
Nearly half a century later, he was still there. His face telling of painful times; of worry and grief. His body old beyond its age; branded by years of withstanding the seasons. When I asked him about accessing services, about getting support so he could move into accommodation, he simply said No. After all these decades on the streets, he couldn’t imagine life inside anymore.
Another gentleman had been homeless for a couple of years by the time I talked to him. I asked him what happened and his grief was palpable in every word he spoke. He suffered from depression and anxiety since he lost his girlfriend to a fire in their flat. Unable to cope with the situation, he found it impossible to work or attend appointments at his local authority. It didn’t take long before his benefits were sanctioned – throwing him into homelessness; with his depression and guilt keeping him there.
And a young woman had come to London with hopes for a better life. There was nothing back in her home country – no jobs, no perspective. Somebody had told her that it was easy to find work in that buzzing city she wanted to make her home; and so she had arrived in London with all the youthful dreams and wonderful expectations about what her life would bring. Reality, however, turned out to be a cruel companion.
At first, she had been able to support herself with a small job in a kitchen; but it paid badly and her English was too poor to find something else. When she lost her job, she had no savings to fall back on; and from there, it was a quick route on to the streets. At night, she would rely on the mercy of bus drivers to let her stay on board for as long as possible – keeping her safe. During the day, she would go to services to get some food, a shower, support. All she knew for certain was that she could not go back to her home country – her future there looking darker than the streets of London.
I was new to the city back then; with nothing more to offer than some food and my time. It felt insufficient. And yet, people seemed happy to talk, meeting me without any preconceptions, and with an openness I admired.
Time and again, their lives shared that one moment when things went wrong. Sometimes, these events hung over their stories like dark storm clouds – you could see them coming slowly and it just seemed a matter of time until they would drown whatever lied beneath. But just as often, these life-changing events came in the form of unexpected earthquakes that would make their world fall apart – with nothing to hold on to.
These stories, these lives, are the real tragedies on the stage of London – playing out each day, each night. In plain sight. Yet invisible.
Diaries of a Vincentian takes a closer look at some of the more personal experiences of Vincentians working with homeless people, slum dwellers and refugees. They shine a light on the moments that inspired us, the situations that left us speechless and shocked, and the people that crossed our paths and showed us that more must be done.
What connects them is that Vincentian commitment to the poorest of the poor; and the hope that as a Family, we can do more.
Anja Bohnsack, Research and Development Manager