London is one of the worlds leading tourist destinations, with millions making the trip here every year to experience its eclectic mix of rich history and modern urban culture. However, beyond the bright lights and grand buildings, there is another side of London that goes unnoticed. With the big smoke experiencing a homeless crisis, fuelled by rising costs of living, broken social services and a drug epidemic. With the help of our London insider Arabella, we delved deeper to bring to light to the truth behind being homeless in London.
Over the past year, Arabella has been leading the impactful CONSIL research program at UCL. Primarily focused on studying interactions between the police and the homeless in London. Breaking down tentative topics such as the way homeless people are treated by the police, their perceptions of the police, and their (non-) compliance behaviour. In the process of conducting her research, Arabella became close to a community of people who were homeless in London.
She first came across the people during the day, finding them residing at a small park outside Euston station. After multiple interactions, Arabella built up a strong rapport with the group. Spending hours learning more about their stories and how they ended up on the street. These individuals expressed interest in sharing their personal stories and opinions in an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of people living homeless in London.
Almost 9,000 people are currently living rough on the streets of London, according to the Chain figures published by the Greater London Authority. Most people walk by them every day without even noticing them. However, the invisible people of London may be lost in the big smoke, but have some intriguing stories to tell.
These people get a glimpse of the full spectrum of society, interacting every day with people from all walks of societies. From yuppies, corner shop boss men, police forces, government organisations, charities, drug dealers, addicts and much more.
Yet only a handful of people take the time out of their days to converse with these individuals and understand what it really means to be homeless. To get an idea of the demographics, homeless people in the capital are 80% male, and almost 50% foreigners. The most common causes of homelessness are family breakdowns, domestic violence, mental health problems and alcohol or drug addictions.
Drugs, especially opioids and heroin are responsible for the deaths of most homeless people each year, with the numbers in London being comparatively higher to other UK city’s. After spending time with the homeless in London, one thing became very apparent. Being homeless in London lead to them developing unhealthy and addictive habits, which ultimately lock them into a downward spiral. With little to lose and feeling of hopelessness, they often find themselves trapped into a vicious cycle of addiction.
Have you ever thought about it? What it really means to be homeless. Without a place to leave your stuff safely. Without a place where you can wash and sleep. Without a place where you can escape to whenever you so desire. Life on the streets is a constant hustle. A survival game, where the urban survivalists struggle to find their place in the concrete jungle. Not knowing what tomorrow might bring, and without much hope left. These people can tell us a lot about what is wrong with societies in popular destinations like London.
So Like Locals, together with Arabella and UCL, decided to approach the homeless of the Euston area and asked them to give us a first-hand narrative of life on the streets. Budgie, Matthew, Mario and Mark are the four people that were interviewed by Arabella, and their stories are truly heartfelt.
In this blog post, we’ll follow the story of Budgie. A British national who ended up homeless in London, after serving jail time for grand theft auto. With no one to turn to after his conviction, he decided to stay on the streets to remove himself from his past. Upon becoming homeless, Budgie slowly got dragged into the street lifestyle, and started using drugs. Out of all the drugs on the streets, the most damaging of all is Spice. A potent synthetic cannabinoid that can even have fatal effects if taken in high doses.
Budgie is a caring and loving person that has lost his hope and strength after spending almost 20 years on the streets. After spending so long in the depths of degradation, he told of his struggles and how hard it had become for him to stand back on his feet with pride. To add to the fear of freezing to death, getting seriously sick or getting abused by the public or some sort of authority. Budgie has another major threat to look out for, and that is, unfortunately, his own people. Some people who live on the streets are more dangerous than others, being aggressive and stealing from their peers. Taking their clothes, their food and their belongings. Heres what budgie had to say about his life,
“This is how life on the streets really is; from taking a hit, to being knicked, to begging, to this (points at his dirty clothes), that is the way life is for me right now. When I get up in the morning and I ask you for some spare change for a coffee, it’s not for a coffee! It’s so that I can get a joint! Because I need that joint to get me moving in the morning – not because I want that joint but because I’ve got to have it. Before you know it, you’re dependent on it. In the morning, at lunchtime, at dinner time; and before you know it you’re getting up in the morning begging to get that fix again. As soon as that’s done, you beg again to get another one. It’s a horrible, horrible situation. It’s like now. I’m going to go and sit over there, hoping that the police don’t come to stop me from begging and I’ll make enough money to get something to eat and smoke.”
Spice, like heroin, can have very severe withdrawal symptoms. Especially when used on a daily basis and for prolonged periods of time. The physical and mental effects result from not taking your dose are extreme. From being sick, constant vomiting, sleep apnea, loss of appetite, psychotic episodes and depression. Couple these with the rough life on the streets, and you have a one-way ticket into the abyss.
“This is all I’ve got now (stands up and points to what he is wearing) … god, it really sucks. Whoever took my stuff didn’t stop to think that it’s somebody’s life in that ruck sack. This has happened to me many times before. It’s depressing, you know what I mean? As if you’re not down enough, and then you get that kick in the teeth as well. It’s terrible around here…it’s so demoralizing… it’s one hit after another, it breaks my heart. Kick after kick after kick. Sometimes you don’t get any luck, sometimes you get lots of luck and it’s all bad, and now and again you might get a little bit of good luck.”
It is incredibly hard, if not impossible, for people living in such desperate conditions, not to be completely demoralized. Budgie seems to be very aware of his situation, and this realization is hampering his mental state even more. The spice addiction is more powerful than his will or his discipline – as would be the case for anyone who gets into such habits.
“I hate myself, I thoroughly hate myself. I can’t believe I’m in this position, I can’t believe I do the things I do. I don’t feel that I’m good enough for anything, to have anything, or to be anybody, you know? I feel worthless, basically. Proper worthless. It’s the way it is, and it doesn’t seem like there is anything I can do about it, it’s the way I feel inside. Believe it or not, I am constantly scared 24 hours a day, of everything. Of everything and nothing.”
It seems that one of the hardest challenges that homeless people face is not the food or the money, but a lack of structure in their lives. In fact, Budgie and the other guys said that making money by begging in London isn’t hard. With some people apparently even making 300 pounds a day. This has led to a few scammers pretending to be homeless for a few days of the week, dressing down for the occasion and making a living out of it.
Like for Budgie and most other homeless people, the absence of purpose in their lives. The lack of opportunities makes it hard for them to visualize a positive future. The mental strain of living on the streets, being constantly degraded by fellow citizens. Those are the things that are holding them back from a more prosperous life. And of course, for most of them, the high body and mental addiction to substances like spice exacerbate this feeling of hopelessness. Raising some interesting questions about what the rest of us are doing, or could do better to help them.
“I got stopped this morning from the police and they said that if they get me again I’ll be given a section 33, I think that bans you from the town, from the city, or just from Euston. I don’t want that. I’m used to it here. It’s what you get to know. You see a few familiar faces. If you’re new in town everyone on the street looks at you dodgy, ‘what’s he doing here? What’s his story? Why is he on the run? He’s an easy target.”
Unfortunately, Budgie was evicted from the city by the police shortly after this interview. He was given a one-way ticket out of London. An attempt by the police to decrease the numbers of homeless people in London. Further compounding this problem, not solving it. But what is the involvement of the government bodies and non-profit organizations in eradicating homelessness? What measures have been implemented? How effective are those, and what can be further done to help the situation? All of these and more will be discussed in our next post, where we talk to Mario. A Romanian war veteran who gave us a first-person of the crisis of being homeless in London.
If this is a topic that interests you and you want to find out more about it, stay tuned for the next edition of our Homeless in London series. Also, be sure to check out “60 days on the streets” on Channel 4. Where ex-soldier Ed Stattford documents what it means to live on the streets by volunteering to become homeless himself.
All of the photos used in this post were taken by the street community involved in the CONSIL research program. With full signed authorisation to be used by Like Locals.