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 center stage – the main act – with the rest of the world being turned into the enthralled audience waiting for the dramatic conclusion.
On the side-lines, separate, smaller plays seem to run their course … unnoticed by the majority. They tell 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 afterwards, I couldn’t stop listening . The people I talked with opened a new world to me … no school could have provided me with better teachers.
Their stories were as different and varied as life itself and yet, they were so heart-breakingly similar.
One man told me he had been living on the streets for over 40 years, since he was 17 years old. His single mom died unexpectedly while he had been away at a summer camp. It should have been a happy, untroubled time, but instead it became the event that changed his life. There was no help for him from anybody … no family to turn to and no state support system offering assistance. There was, however, a mortgage that 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. Still 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 was marked by years of exposure to the ever changing seasons. When I asked him about accessing services, about getting support so he could move into more comfortable accommodations, he simply said, “no”. After living so many years on the streets, he couldn’t imagine a different life.
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 (he had lost his girlfriend in a fire in their flat). Unable to cope with the situation, he found it impossible to work or keep appointments that had been setup for him. It didn’t take long before his benefits expired – throwing him into a situation of homelessness (his depression and guilt kept him in that situation).
A young woman had come to London with the hope of finding a better life. There was nothing to look forward to in her home country, no job or employment opportunities. So she arrived in London with her youthful dreams and wonderful expectations about what this new life would offer her. 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 her was unable to pay her bills with the meager wage that she was receiving and her poor English became an obstacle for better employment. 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 who allowed her stay on board for as long as possible – keeping her safe. During the day, she would go to various places where she might 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 was bleaker than the streets of London.
I was new to the city back then and had 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 that 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.
Diary 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 events that created these situations … situations that left us speechless and shocked.
What connects them is the 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