From the row over sponsored sleep-outs to the question of giving to beggars, anonymous blogger ‘Aibaihe’s’ incisive online commentary has brought the recent spate of homelessness controversies to life. Here she describes 24 hours in her life on London’s streets
Sunday morning: my one chance for a lie-in because I work Monday to Friday in an office and then Saturday I clean public toilets (though of course my colleagues are unaware of my situation) but it’s 6.30am and freezing. Not only that, but my bladder feels fit to explode.
I have a quick look round. Someone has left £1 by my head and I put that in my pocket to add to my charity fund as I don’t accept donations myself (my current nominated charity is homelessness organisation Doorway Project). I see my friend has been by in the night and left a bag of goodies from the late night soup runs (a quick rummage reveals home-made bread pudding, crisps and chocolate).
I wake my current sleeping buddy, Nipper, by tickling his ear (we have been paired up to assist each other - I am keeping him sober till he checks into rehab and he is protecting me from the frighteningly regular assaults that have been inflicted on me). I arrange to meet him on the Strand, one of the main food drop-off points, while I pop to the 24-hour convenience in Covent Garden.
I am exhausted from the previous day’s work and limp round to the toilets, checking to see if there is anyone I know to greet. At this hour, most everyone out and about is a rough sleeper, with just the occasional market trader or street cleaner beginning their day’s work.
By the time I get to the Strand at 7.15am, there is already quite a crowd. A car has just dropped off sandwiches, hot drinks and cake and people are tucking in. Everyone is munching and greeting new arrivals and commenting on the change in weather.
Sunday is a great day for food handouts, especially from church organisations. You would not believe how many groups offer street food to the homeless from about 6.00am until midnight every day of the year. There are a few ‘hot spots’ like Temple, Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the Strand but there are a great number of other places you can go as well. Sandwiches are the most common, but there is also a good choice of hot food, including vegetarian options.
I decide not to stick around but rather head to the ‘McDaycentre’ opposite (really a well-known burger bar) for a cup of tea with Nipper to hide from the cold for two hours before the real daycentre opens. The homeless are the main customers at this hour (hence the nickname); two I don’t recognise have the nerve to try to beg off me.
At 9.00am the daycentre opens and we head inside. My friend is being his usual cheeky self but the staff, to our great delight, give as good as they get. Yesterday, I found some money so I (unusually) can afford to buy breakfast. Nipper has a bacon sandwich (£1.10) and I have egg and chips (90p).
Another friend turns up and we spend a few hours discussing homelessness services, politics as well as more general chit-chat (all the rough sleepers I have met are great talkers and no topic is too cerebral). This friend is well on the way to getting permanently off the streets after
35 years of living homeless.
My teeth are feeling a bit funky so I ask for a toothbrush and toothpaste from the staff and these are supplied. Then, after meeting up with the final member of our ‘band of brothers’, a toothless Welshman who has been on the streets for five years and refuses point blank to claim any benefits, we set off for St Giles in the Fields for the Simon Community’s street cafe.
The guys all manage two bowls of sausage and pasta stew washed down with plenty of tea. I eat a Danish pastry and a thick slice of the home-made bread pudding from my bag. Today is the Rangers versus Celtic football derby and there is a lot of ribbing of Celtic supporter Nipper on the occasion of their loss - a few have internet phones and are shouting out the score updates, much to his distress.
We sit around for a couple of hours then head down to the Strand. I am starting to feel really cold and so I return to the warmth of the McDaycentre for a couple of hours.
The soup runs are arriving every 15 minutes now. At 6.00pm a van pulls up. Everyone forms an orderly line behind the doors but no one gets out. Those of us near the front start giggling - maybe it is not a soup run, just someone trying to park and now they are petrified at the sight of the 100-plus rough-looking people who have suddenly crowded round them!
It turns out to be a church offering vegetarian curry and rice, followed by a bowl of delicious, piping hot rice pudding. Almost immediately after that, someone else comes with chicken stew and rice and some people throw the first meal onto the floor.
A Polish man talks to me. He is collecting food to take back to his squat and offers me a room there but I decline.
I’m starting to get really cold. I head to the ventilation ducts where I usually sleep but, disastrously, they are switched off. I struggle to sleep for several hours because of the temperature. Someone walks by and drops some coins by my sleeping bag - 30p in coppers - and I put them in my pocket to add to my fund for the rural homeless.
Nipper runs off and comes back an hour later with a lukewarm - but still welcome - cup of tea from Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Finally, mercifully, I fall asleep but it is fitful and I wake frequently.
How it came to this
‘My landlord asked me to move so he could sell,’ writes Aibaihe, 35. ‘I wanted to take advantage of the notice period but he preferred a shorter timeframe. After numerous threats, he simply changed the locks, stealing anything of value and throwing the rest into the street.
‘The police said I could be arrested if I tried to force my way back in. The council refused to assist because I wasn’t on benefits. The solicitor wanted £4,000 to sue him. I lived on a campsite for eight months and then moved onto the streets because free was all I could afford and, having slept rough as a teenager, I knew I could manage.
‘My salary is taken up entirely on a foreign mortgage where my family live. My income has been halved in the recession. All current housing options for the homeless are aimed at those who don’t work and are outrageously expensive.’
The ups and downs of Aibaihe’s life on the street
This month I discovered:
- an excellent soup run at Temple serving spicy veg
- that the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank offers warmth and free wi-fi all day
- true friendship
- I finally accepted that sleeping alone is too dangerous
- winter arrived
- my friends lost three buddies to drink and drugs