Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Homeless


2012 will be the last year that an abandoned office complex on Galleons Reach, at Royal Docks, will be used to shelter London’s homeless for five days at Christmas.  Built to house a now long departed-abroad-for-cheaper-labour pharmaceutical company, the Ivax Centre actually stands on a sort of giant jetty or reach and through the large windows you realize you are looking out towards the blazing sky-lines of Canary Wharf and the central London cluster beyond. To your left, also directly opposite on the other side of the dark river, the low horizon of Thamesmead, and directly behind the darker mix of industrial and new build apartments the windows of which invite you to envy the moneyed people within. This was the nightview beginning some two feet from the floor to the vast ceiling.

Tonight, Christmas Eve where were the people I knew? What were they doing tonight? Fifty years of age in less than a month and I knew I felt more akin to the three hundred men and some women asleep at my feet on narrow low-slung canvass beds, beneath thin blankets brought up over each face so that, bar the temperature, the incongruous penthouse views, it looked like a morgue. I was overwhelmed and choked on sudden tears and a well of sadness.

 The spectre of homelessness has been casting an indiscriminate shadow over every part of the UK since the recession in 2008, no one is safe, individuals, families, middle-class, working class, defaulting on mortgages, redundancies, joblessness…

But where are the people I know? What are they doing and why does London, some several miles in the distance, seem to have its back turned on these lives spread out here before me.

 I said after, ‘There were mobile phones’ and someone (I forget who) screeched. ‘That’s all they have’. Who were ‘they’ texting or naively bothering to be friends with? Do you still post a round of ‘Merry Christmas’ on your Facebook wall knowing the brutally stark fact that not one of the 198 ‘Friends’ has invited you to dinner…or worse, have not been worth bothering to tell of your plight to, either for shame or, and more likely, because the moment you write, ‘I am homeless, need a friend for Christmas’ the collective silence would be deafening and Facebook, that knee-jerk friend would become a scorched void or at best a useless litany of ‘Hug x’s.

I had Christmas dinner at home before I began my 10.15pm  shift. I had the full trimmings…I wanted for there to be absolutely no doubt as to why I was volunteering. I had been invited to a party in Brixton the day before, and though I was a bit out of sorts and did not go; it was still an invite to socialize, and to food and drink and in the hub-bub of middle-class chatter you could pretend in theatrical tones you were keeping your head above water and list, along with a hundred others, your life in headlines, while a convoy of mini-buses moved silently away from central London to the derelict Ivax Centre.

Joyce Vincent  the young social woman who had laid dead on her sofa for three years after having wrapped Christmas presents (for whom for God’s sake?) with the TV on…no one tried to phone, or call round; did everyone assumed she was having a good time? I have taken evasive action before, gone away on retreat, but at these events there is a strained bonhomie, which peaks then sags lamentably the day after the whole dreadful affair is over; the elephant of loneliness-at-Christmas plonked firmly on the lawn throughout.

Of course, some have gone to visit relatives or having relatives come and stay; this is not always idyllic and I have noticed in my youth a sort of kamikaze-type atmosphere in the clubs in the lead up to Christmas, a collective last-ditch surge of individualism before being once again slotted back into the family hierarchy as brother, sister, outcast, ugly-ducking, favourite, resented, disappointment. For others it is a lovely time. I do not get on with my mum; we do not like each other. Well, I’ll speak for myself, it takes an enormous amount of pretence to…well pretend. Two sisters both close to my mum. ITV reruns, fold-up table, side-by-side on the ‘couch’ like sardines; I guess that pre-Christmas hysteria racket is the sound of a few hundred thousand fantasists and snobs crashing back down to earth.

Mobile phones…What does someone who knows someone who is sleeping in an abandoned office text them ‘You say you’re in New York but my Google maps tracked you to the Ivax Centre mate. Is there a rave on?’ And referred, checked and bussed in from Covent Garden you text. ‘Nah, I’m volunteering for Crisis for Christmas with all these homeless people’.Of course the young Irish always lied about the work they were doing and the places they lived in when writing home from the New World to loved ones and it was obvious that this is what was at play on Christmas Eve and at the Christmas day night shift; God knows what lies were being told to relatives in Poland, France, Africa, Russia and here at home in the UK. This ship was on the Thames but going nowhere.

During my toilet shift where, in pairs, we would sit outside the male and female toilets and after each one came out we would, with rubber gloves on, go in and clean the toilet seat and sinks used, a man would enter the cubicle and stay in there for half an hour or more. With an acre of sleeping space around him this put his default setting learned on the city streets into stark relief;. Another sign of entrenched sleeping habits found some preferring direct contact with the floor, while one young blond long-haired English guy, we were told, would be allowed to sleep in a cubby hole on the ground floor under the stairs with all of his belonging in two bags.

 There was an academic whose theses were poring out in an unboundered torrent; upper-middle class, mid-fifties, beige chinos, cardigan, his theory or theories were otherwise fascinating but for the fact that the longer he talked the more he appeared as insubstantial as a cardboard cut-out; it was an involuntary vision, that crept in at a point at which the individual claims and grandiosity seemed the most over-bloated; paradoxically you felt you could move just a fraction either side to glimpse the serrated board behind. At one point I recognized myself in him or a warning; at some point his erudition had parted company with reality and I imagined that the red-statements had begun to pile up as fast as the second-hand books. He was taking my female partner hostage with his enthusiasm and at one point; we found our motives as volunteers being woven into his doctorate.

 We were shown to a corner of the second floor, the six, foot five Aussi volunteer with huge hands and I, and told not only to watch over the sleepers, for whom it was the first time in months they could allow themselves a deep sleep, but a huge open window was indicated and we were told that the young man who would occupy the bed directly in front of us, might periodically try to get by us to throw himself out of it. Our co-ordinator or Green badge. An Arab-looking man with a home county’s accent in his forties or early fifties, hunched slightly at the shoulder, short hair dyed a faded purple, open-faced, caring, world-weary. We were made aware that the young man who would try to get to the window had mental health problems. I recognized schizophrenia. The giant Aussi barred the way, and after saying he wanted to sleep in the small landing in front of the large open window, between the volunteer’s toilets and the lift, he trotted off.

The average life expectancy of these guys is forty-seven’, said one of my partners on the early morning Christmas Eve shift. Forty-seven? Who came up with that statistic? I looked out at the sea of bodies covered with the thin blankets even the face, aged between twenty and around thirty five to guess from those who rose intermittently to go to the toilet. Worn down by rough sleeping I guess. Or you reach an age where the cold kills, even so, a vague selfish feeling that I had passed this age surfaced briefly… I was a survivor…so far.

It is easy to die of loneliness in London; we’ve intellectualized it to put distance, no doubt between it, and the horror of its reality; atomized. We have all become atomized. This used to mean the ’me’ generation but that suggests something we’re all in on together. Atomized means totally isolated as individuals. If you go down there is no one to witness your descent into vagrancy; it suggests that although you chat away on social media, turn up for work, consume goods in you local supermarket and coffee chain, watch national events on TV you are simply filling a seat that could just as well be filled by another faceless soul. Should you no longer appear on Facebook there are plenty of others to chat to. Again Joyce Vincent decomposing in front of the TV is testimony to the fact that our sense of belonging is an illusion, and the turn-over in smiles and customers at your retail outlets dictates you will not now be missed. Fear of homelessness comes with the yawning revelation that of all your activities in your structured life you have failed to make a lasting impression as an individual. Without money, even some change in your pockets as far as London is concerned you are a none person; access denied, all areas.

I asked someone whose flat I went to over a ten year period and who had been to mine what books he thought I liked. He did not know. My modest bookcases have been staring him in the face for over a decade. I have a select number of authors about whom I am passionate and whose works I have a collection. I knew he was a fan of Nick Hornby and Tony Parson. I had found him an unread edition by the first author on more than one occasion because I ‘had borne him in mind.’ I asked this friend a few other questions which confirmed that all those things I held dear, he had not bothered to acquaint himself with; it is these ‘frenemies’ who let you slide without noticing or caring that you have.

In the semi-darkness there is random snoring coming from beneath the blankets. There is a couple over there; beds pulled together, spooning. She against the wall, him, protective in sleep. He is wearing some thermal long-johns made of the latest synthetic fabric; six foot two, three, short brown hair, long torso, swimmer body, twenty-three-five; like an Olympic swimmer really. Someone’s mobile alarm goes off. An alarm set for a job he once had. Reassured by the presence of us volunteers silhouetted in various corners in pair, the rough sleepers have fallen into the deepest sleep they have had in well over sixth month.

Who are the people who kick rough sleepers, and sometimes piss on them? It’s that the ‘I’m alright hubris of alcohol’. Outside, fiery in the distance that cruel London spilling out of the clubs and bars, rising up way beyond Galleon’s reach; but it is the London of the variously lit skyline of the banking area, the Gherkin, that Saurean’s tower symbolisms of a global mammon and a sold-out city, The Shard- it was that London that had gone astray, had disconnected from it’s own reality a reality which lay hidden well out of view, here on the industrial thin carpet of an ex pharmaceutical company, itself having fled Britain in search of cheaper labour.

Housing benefits for the jobless have been capped, private landlords who have no affiliation, nationally or otherwise to anyone or anything but their own atomized greed, are, increasingly no longer renting to those receiving benefits, the social housing stock was sold off in the eighties and nineties in the right-to-buy scheme promoted by that arriviste bitch and there are no jobs; in December 2012 there were 30 jobs advertised with London Underground; 300.000 applied! This isn’t the only rough sleepers centre we were told to keep secret in the run up to Christmas.

Oh she looks middle-class and trendy, scrapping her blond hair behind her ear, me looking for the tell-tale volunteers badge; she hasn’t got one; I instinctively looked away. Though I don’t know her, as I watched her look for her bed while walking along the precarious tight-rope of her dignity, she was that natural fibres, artistic sort I was familiar with; she was Nell, Tammy, Cathy, in this climate it was not unimaginable to see either of them here Nell having been made redundant from the Library, Tammy from the Photographic Archive, and Cathy from her Teaching jobs. No I felt a stab of recognition and I instinctively knew that had she been any one of these women made homeless in mid-life, they would not be able to recover from being recognized.

 We were told that the nightshift involved watching over the sleepers because some, not used to sleeping indoors would wake- up or not be able to sleep and we were there if they needed to chat. Using the toilet shift a man was talking to my then female shift partner. ‘Some haven’t spoken to a woman in months, even  years’, our co-ordinator had said’.  Are our women are cold and materialistic…like our men…maybe the women are kicking and pissing on rough sleepers too…or that won’t be long in coming.  ‘There’s a secret millionaire here’ said the man in his late thirties. ‘He’s gonna find me’. And I caught myself thinking, ‘Don’t you have to be doing something for yourself before the secret millionaire takes up your cause?’ I realized I was basically saying as I stared down at him with his hope and enthusiasm ‘but you’ve nothing left to work with’. Like a deafening dull thud I knew that reality star millionaire’s and the watching public were not motivated by pity.

No one could find the thermostat on Christmas Eve and the building was stifling, none of the main of the wall to wall windows opened and there was a musty smell of wood-fires and stale sweat, but not unbearably so; there were showers here. The centre had been open since 22nd of December and the last night would be the 29th, a seven day reprieve from the hunt for somewhere warm to sleep, a respite from ferreting for food, and a holiday from being insulted, victimized and murdered.; on the shift later on, gaurding the bottom of the stairs the human spirit in some reached heights of childish skittishness as they slid down the banisters and caught themselves skipping, like wildebeest who prance and careen with joy once they finally reach pastures green after a long and dangerous migration.

Over excited not all had gone to bed, some sat around socializing in the wide-Awake room somewhere in the first floor.


Some of the homeless seemed to come up from the wide-awake floor in groups of two’s and threes, all ethnically the some and whose beds lay side-by-side; a strange pact; ‘let’s go to London for and stay at a refuge for the homeless, ’ although... Obviously, it is more complicated than that. For one, you have to be referred. Referred comes with the condition that you won’t be any trouble. Although from the several fight broken out around the Brazilian Beach Bar, or sheltered drinking area, that particular some have slipped through the net. Many North African had needed to flle from Tunisia and Morocco during the Arab Spring, and although most now inhabit the parks and squares of Paris and other French cities, some made it across to the UK and this group of cleanly dressed young men in the corner sharing Magrebin music through a phone may well be the lucky ones.

The lost generation; between, well, where to start? Where the baby Boomers end? I can not guess what it is like to be young and in competition with thousands, nay millions of others for jobs that are not there, to be told constantly by an over-privileged out-of-touch banker/proxy Prime Minister with an obvious sadistic and craven streak, that you do not deserve the pittance you get, and that he is clearly willing to exercise a mercantile and mercenary instinct by employing the dog-eat-dog divide and rule and set the ‘mob’ against itself. If we are going to maintain our dignity it is best if we, to a man and woman, ignore David Cameron’s inane utterances and all reports thereof completely. To pit neighbour against neighbour and stoke up resentment and ill-will by saying, at the budget announcement in Parliament. ‘You go out to work and your neighbour is still in bed’ and to receive a cheer in the house from these dogs of divide and rule also fat-necked bankers, and, furthermore to use terms like ‘Strivers and skivers’, is irresponsible in the extreme; It is a relentless decoy away from their own affection-starved money-addicted selves. All bankers, meaning David Cameron and his ilk, I believe, should be imprisoned for treason; end of.

I have slept today, intermittently, know that my sleep cycles will be temporarily upside-down due to night shifts, yet surrounded by three hundred slumbering souls…Of all the things offered over Christmas, the company of fellow human beings, homeless and volunteers alike, Christmas dinner, sleep, deep unguarded sleep is the one luxury prized the most, and some, if not most lie in as late as they can, or come to their little space early to catch up on and indeed store up on sleep as though it were a basic commodity like rice, our flour. At debriefing one of the middle-aged male co-ordinators held back his tear. “A young man came to me and said ‘Thank you, It’s the first time I’ve slept well in six months’ “. Reminded of our roles on day two, Christmas Night as ‘floaters’, walking around silently, like protective angels, instead of sitting, my partner, a well-preserved forty-seven year old who West Indian guy from Ilford who had cared for his ailing mother and father until both had died- “ you may feel like you aren’t doing anything, said our co-ordinator, but just by being here allows them to feel safe enough to sleep deeply”. On the last night, I was told by a co-ordinator, before they are let out into the hostile world again, you can hear the anxiety in their sleep; alot cry.

I don’t mean to blow my own altruistic trumpet here, but me and the West-Indian guy were both elected by accident to be patrolling guardians of the sleepers or ‘floaters’. The days prior to Christmas night this role had been reserved for the head co-ordinators while pairs of volunteers were placed in strategic angles to watch, sedentary, over the snoring covered rows.  It was  between the briefing and the selection of groups of twelve that I had the urgent need to pee. On my return from the toilet, which must have taken less than five minutes, all the teams had been selected and had departed for their various sectors; I was suddenly a spare. The head co-ordinator looked a bit baffled then told me to find Sue on the second floor, they were apparently one short. Joining the group who waited silently to relieve the day shift, even though I was now indistinguishable within the team, I noticed the late arrival of the West-Indian guy, who also had been distracted at selection having checked on his belongings for what was a nano-second, (the selection and turnover is necessarily rapid)-again , every one was selected for designated seated surveillance posts and, miraculously, we found we were spare again. ‘This is a very special role’. We were told. 

Thus on Christmas night we did two three hour stints walking up and down separated but keeping an eye on each other, in the vast darkened of the abandoned ex-pharmaceutical offices, surrounded by the incongruous duality of penthouse views and mass homelessness.  I don’t know how many miles I walked that night within that space, alert to every sound, nocturnal muttering, groan of anxiety, involuntary yell, fart, chorus of snores, but my body seemed to slick into a solid mode, almost primed like a predator; something had set like a statue or benevolent gargoyle or stone angel; my back had long began to ache, in the middle, either side of my spine…as though to counter-balance my relentless vigil.

 A young mixed-race guy had entered the sleeping area and was spraying Air Freshener through the giant dormitory. He had already passed one of the co-ordinators before he could be stopped. There was a collective groan, which belied the depth of sleep. The place now stank of artificial pot-pourrie. In a corner the older green badge,- lovely man, his fourteenth year, also bent forward with the nightly and yearly burden of his twelve hour vigils - he was having a firm whispered word with the young mixed-race guy. Someone mentioned that in such a closed space the Air-Freshener could induce asthma attacks and on cue a figure sat up and I heard the double staccato release of his inhaler. As an asthma suffer, and asthma having at its core fear of abandonment, I felt a flash of anger at the young man’s irresponsibility and arrogance at spraying his fellow rough sleepers with chemicals while repeating ‘It stinks in here’. Well, it may stink in here but you’re in here too, mate and you don’t raise your status by stepping on those already in the gutter…mate. Oddly enough though, it admittedly did transform the pungent spaceship into a, if somewhat synthetic, woodland glade.

The feeling that I, were I in their situation, would be dealing with it with less grace, haunted me throughout. Would my pride and arrogance render me the barking street orator railing against a general public who had abandoned me; no doubt. I would lack the humility for a quiet demise. Homelessness is in direct contrast to the naïve premises that everyone is basically there to rescue everyone else, the fact that this is a basic fallacy was illustrated recently at Hammersmith station during evening rush hour six months ago. I was meeting a friend to see Edgar Allen-Poe stories at The Lyric Theatre and had arrived early. On exiting the ticket barriers I noticed gangs of police in the main hall of the station. Each gang of threes and fours had surrounded a man or a woman who they were in the process of literally strip-searching. It could in no way be mistaken for a London transport ticket inspection; it targeted ethnic minorities. Contents of bags were spilled over on to the concourse, trousers were half way down revealing underpants, skirts lifted up the owners were Pakistani, blacks. A group led an old Eastern European Big Issue seller away in custody. Flat-jacketed men and women patrolled the scenes of mass search and arrest, jack-booted chests puffed up, while, to my astonishment hoards of commuters poured into the station from the offices around and refused to acknowledge the Nazi-style round-up acting itself out before them; they were literally sleep-walking en mass! Not one person stopped to enquire why individuals were being thus humiliated in full view. The scene was horrifically reminiscent of public humiliation of the Jews in pre-war Germany or Lithuania, the photographer catching the victim kicked to the ground while smart shoes, trousered and stocking-ed-legs rushed by; Sleepwalkers. I went to Rymans on Kings Street , bought a huge piece of cardboard a black marker pen and wrote, WAKE UP. THEY ARE STOPPING PAKISTANIS, BLACKS AND ETHNIC MINORITIES, SAY SOMETHING. REMEMBER NAZI GERMANY, REMEMBER LITHUAN.

Like a walking sandwich board I approached the general area of the search carried out hitherto totally unchallenged by the hoards of Londoners on their way home.  Done searching one man a group of five police men and women approached me and my orange one-man protest. As soon as they were next to me one said, “Can we have a word about that sign”. My goal was to stir protest not provoke the police; it was beyond that…I was beyond that. I immediately began yelling the content of my protest for all to hear. WAKE UP! THEY ARE STOPPING PAKISTANIS, BLACKS AND ETHNIC MINORITIES! SAY SOMETHING! REMEMBER NAZI GERMANY, REMEMBER LITHUAN! The five police officers, as one, all jumped away from me as though by attempting to use the crowd I had shown them a sudden and clear refection of themselves and they had been instinctively jolted out of the mirror’s and their own hideous line of sight.

Ironically, It was an old African caretaker or security guard who moved my protest outside, and even more ironic was my near physical confrontation with a Lithuanian who took umbrage at me mentioning Lithuania’s treatment of the Jews, saying “We we’re occupied’, or ‘there was a war on’, or some such excuse. I should have said-, indicating the secret police-style immigration sweep, (for that is what it officially was) – ‘well mate now’s you’re chance’. He totally missed the point and went his way apoplectic with indignation. Another guy said ‘Fuck the Jews’, and sauntered off with his Muslim mates. But it was the collective ability to edit out what we do not want to see that horrified and still horrifies me. Were you there, passing through Hammersmith Station during the evening rush hour while fellow human beings were being humiliated, or did you feel the warm embrace of blind elitism?

No comments:

Post a comment