A Letter from London By Alexia Saoulli
THE NUMBER of homeless people here never ceases to depress me. There’s virtually a Big Issue seller on every street corner not to mention the heartbreaking sight of teenage runaways sleeping rough. I often wonder what life events led them to this state and what goes on inside their heads. A lot of the time they have mental health issues and for some reason have ended up on the streets with no one to care for them. Some of the younger ones have perhaps fled from unhappy and abusive homes, hoping to find solace in the faceless streets of London.
I’m also always amazed how many of them have dogs, lovingly cared for and tucked next to them on their sleeping bags. Compared to their owners, the dogs are normally well fed, albeit rather bereft.
As I write this, it’s cold and wet outside and I can’t help but think how David’s doing tonight. He’s a Scottish man who sits outside Guy’s Hospital near London Bridge Tube Station every night and plays a purple recorder. Every time someone passes by he calls out for some change. I think he’s got his ‘usuals’ who always give him a couple of quid. The odd time he manages to get a tenner. That’s not the norm, however. Normally the white paper cup in front of him sits empty. If you don’t give him anything he doesn’t get upset. He still smiles and waves hello and wishes you well. On wet days he sits under plastic sheeting which he pins up to either side of the railing. He’s never there in the mornings but on my home from work at night he’s always sitting there, under a blanket, blowing into his instrument.
So what’s David’s story? And how did he end up on the streets of London, with only a pair of clothes and blanket to his name?
“I was in prison,” he tells me, in his thick Scottish brogue. “I got three years for ABH (actual bodily harm) for beating a man who tried to rape my girlfriend.”
Turns out the girlfriend was his pregnant fiancée, who was carrying their unborn son, Jack.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have hit him so hard,” said David.
He said the man he’d beaten had been his friend and had gone around bragging about David’s girlfriend and insinuating she had welcomed his advances.
“She was always loyal to me. She never would have done it,” said David.
His son is now six years old. How he went from being unborn to six years old with only a three year prison stint in between isn’t quite clear. Details aren’t exactly David’s forte. He tells me that the courts have instructed him to get his life together before he meets his son.
“So what did you do before prison? What was your job?”
“I was a plumber,” he said.
So why not be a plumber, a profession that will sure get him off the streets, I urge.
“I can’t get a job without an address and a bank account, and I can’t get a bank account without an address,” he said.
I don’t have an answer to that one.
So why London? Why not Scotland?
According to David, his younger brother lives in London and he came here to be with him. His sibling, however, has his own family and his own set of problems and doesn’t want to have anything to do with David.
What about other family?
His sister died three years ago and his mother is in her 60s and he doesn’t want to trouble her.
“But don’t feel sorry for me,” he says. “I did this to myself. I brought it on myself. I probably shouldn’t have hit him so hard… I’ve lost everything. My job, my home, my fiancée, my child. And, do you know what else, I have to pay him compensation for hitting him because he says he’s now scared to leave the house. He’s lying. He just wanted money from the courts, and I have to pay him because he tried to rape my girlfriend,” he said.
As much as I want to give him my time, because I know he wants to talk and is probably lonely and bored, I need to get to the station. I feel my belly rumbling and I quash any thoughts of my warm bed and home-cooked meal. I know David won’t be having anything like that. As I fumble around in my purse to give him some loose change, I wonder what his Christmas will be like. Will he have somewhere to go? I know he currently sleeps on the streets because a lot of the homeless shelters are full and he often doesn’t get a bed in one.
In the mornings he tells me he gets a wash and a meal at a shelter near Bermondsey Street. I’ve seen the homeless queuing up outside the shelter from as early as 7.15am. There are at least two dozen men, and a few women, outside every day. On occasion I’ve seen a few of them weeping, and I feel torn about walking by without stopping to ask if they’re okay. It breaks my heart to see people suffering such hardship and I feel guilty that I instinctively turn my engagement ring to face the palm of my hand. I’m afraid of tempting anyone in the face of their destitution.
As I head toward the station I wave and smile at Jean, my Polish, Big Issue friend. A former shipping hand, Jean is now saving up to go to California after he caught a glimpse of San Francisco Bay on TV and fell in love with it. Once there, he plans on buying a vineyard and living out the rest of his days with a sausage dog.
“You know, they say that people with the sausage dogs live longer [sic]. I read it,” he told me once, pointing to his copy of the Evening Standard. “Maybe I’ll get two,” he laughs.
Jean loves to talk and once you get him going, he doesn’t stop. If I have time, I stop for a chat. He is very engaging and educated, and his knowledge of current affairs never ceases to amaze me. He’s currently trying to do a course so that he can give up the Big Issue and get a different job.
“San Francisco here I come,” he says, as yet another passer-by buys a magazine off him. “I’m one step closer,” he says, giving me a huge grin.