Only the Homeless…
Suddenly there’s nothing
In the early years of the new millennium, my husband and I – in our 50s – began our journey to “start over”. Through a series of disasters and catastrophes, the business we had come to do in London fell through. Suddenly, we were homeless, mostly penniless in the bitter London winter and we were about to become invisible…
At twilight, the stark glare of streetlamps began slicing through the dying light. A few possessions were in the little case at my feet and trying to keep warm, we were wearing most of our clothes. Hungry, tired and so very cold, the search for an affordable room had proved fruitless. Friday afternoon traffic was dwindling across the city as the lashing sleet turned to snow.
Next to me, my husband coughed; a harsh, exhausting hacking; his eyes over-bright in his flushed face. Touching his forehead, I could feel the fever burning. He needed a doctor, a warm bed, food… But on this bitter winter night, there was no waiting bed, certainly no shelter. By asking a café owner, we learned the Royal Chelsea Hospital was nearby, with emergency facilities for walk-in patients.
It was still too early for the party animals and revelers, the habitués of the trendy nightclubs and fancy restaurants in this area. In the twilight gloom between the end of the working week and the start of the weekend, there were no buses. Luxuries like taxis were beyond us and negotiating the icy sidewalks, the journey of a few blocks, took us over an hour.
The hospital waiting room was packed with more than a sixty people in all stages of distress, but it was warm. Sometime after midnight, with a diagnosis of pneumonia and a clutch of medicine, my husband asked if we could sit in the half-empty waiting room until the snow stopped. He never should have bothered. Ignoring the drunks passed out on the floor, security hustled us out into the night. The homeless, crouching unseen in the shadows of a dark alley, are tolerable but not in your face in a brightly-lit waiting room.
There was nothing to do but walk – we had to keep moving – though the cold was brutal. Passing a church, our hopes soared only to find the doors firmly locked and chained. The nightclubs had emptied out; the restaurants had closed long before. After what seemed like hours of walking, a 24-hour supermarket materialized out of the snow. Pretending to shop, we gained nearly an hour of warmth before the security guard started following us around. Leaving with two bananas and a candy bar to share, we came up with a plan.
Somehow, the long night ended and when buses began running at 6am, we bought two, weekly passes. It took almost half our remaining money but we now had a warm place to go. Unwittingly, we were joining a community of invisible people who survived by sleeping on the night buses, changing every hour as each run ended. For three weeks, we avoided the icy snow as we searched for work and shelter.
Fellow homeless refugees included university graduates, builders, retirees and laborers, even a ballerina. Many spoke only the most basic English. One elderly Scotsman befriended us; he showed us where to get water (at night, one tap in all central London), where to get free food, how to get a shower or find an unlocked toilet. We would nap, 40 minutes between depots, then brave the cold to find the next bus going back along the route we’d just come.
In daytime, seriously, sleep deprived, we scrubbed up in the public showers at Victoria Station and looked for work. In our job-hunting clothes for a few hours every day, we became visible. Eye contact, common courtesies; for a few short hours we would re-join the human race. But stowing the clean clothes in the little case and bundling-up against the night-time chill, invisibility again settled over us like a shroud.
Years on, that winter remains a powerful memory. The London of Oliver Twist still exists today. Any kindness, any compassion toward us came from those who had nothing left to give.
The old Scotsman, with his once splendid clothes and good manners; what happened between his beginning and his end? Does survival mean pushing our humanity aside… What is the true language of the human spirit?
The cautious ones, the quiet ones; these invisible remnants of humanity have crossed an ocean of sorrows. Now, stranded on the edges of society, they must climb a wall of indifference. For the old and the weak, the obstacles are sometimes too high: Easier to melt away into the shadows, invisible until it’s time to leave the party.