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Viv, my guide, started sleeping on the streets in 1999. She used to live in a house in West London with her husband and two children, until they divorced and she became homeless. Viv now lives in a squat in South East London with her long term partner. She survives by selling the Big Issue and taking people on walking tours of London.
She began working as a tour guide with Unseen Tours through The Sock Mob. A charity for the homeless, set up about seven years ago, who go out once a week and give out food. Viv tells me, “They're not just for Christmas, but for the whole year.” Unseen tours offer five tours around different parts of London. This is the latest branch of their grass roots project, which seeks to help homeless people help themselves.
Over the course of the next two hours, Viv leads our small group around the back streets of Temple, Covent Garden and Lincoln's Inn, explaining a bit about the history and sharing her own stories about living rough in these areas. This is no dull lecture on London but rather an engrossing tour, where we learn first-hand how people survive on the streets.
“I used to live in Temple Park for a couple of months. The soup runs would come out three days a week and give us hand outs. We used crates from the fruit stall to sleep on and had a blue tarp pulled over us - we'd have to take them down every morning before six and give them back to the fruit stall. It's pretty hard having to take your house down everyday.” Viv chirps. Her cheerful, matter of fact way of describing such hardships, makes the unimaginable seem somehow bearable. However, when we pass a man wrapped up in a sleeping bag under Waterloo Bridge, the desolate reality of homelessness becomes much more chillingly apparent.
Yet Viv does not sentimentalize the dispossessed. She is living proof that many homeless people are capable of holding down a steady job if given the opportunity. As we pass under the bridge, she explains how the whole of Waterloo Bridge was built entirely by women in 1820, before adding, “I used to live under that bridge in a bash for three months.” Bashes are home-made shelters, made out of cardboard, crates, tarpaulin, whatever is at hand to help. Every Sunday for the past twenty years, a family has come here at half past two to feed the poor. Between 50 and 200 homeless people are given a steaming polystyrene cup filled with potatoes, meat and veg. This is a totally charitable initiative, only really known amongst the poor as, “The Stew”.
A little further along the road, just a hundred metres away from the entrance of The Savoy is a sheltered pathway. Viv tells us, it was once known as Shellmax. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, two hundred people used to sleep in front of this building, owned by Shell. A little community formed here every evening where homeless people could sleep in relative safety. Viv explains “If you sleep exposed, you can get kicked, punched, set on fire”. However according to Viv, a security company wanted the homeless moved, while the police wanted them to stay. 2004 saw them erect gates and railings to keep them out.
London has always been a city of extremes, and the stark juxtaposition of the homeless on the doorstep of The Savoy, demonstrates the defiant attitude of the destitute and their symbiotic relationship with the affluent. Yet Viv explains, as we wander round Covent Garden, (the first place she slept rough), that they are trying to stop people sleeping on the streets, due to the Olympics next year. In February this year, Westminster Council already attempted to pass a bill banning soup runs in their borough.
As it stands, under the Vagrancy Act, 1824, one can be prosecuted for begging, though in the Middle Ages vagabonds were punished, with prison, branding and even the death penalty. Thus the idea of making sleeping rough illegal starts to sound less and less unbelievable. Workhouses were set up in the Victorian era to stop people sleeping on the streets, but the conditions were so awful that many returned to the streets. We learn that Dickens, London's finest novelist, and greatest chronicler of the poor, lodged round the corner from Covent Garden, where he published the topical magazine “All Year Round” from 1859 to 1870.
As Viv leads us past Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she points out the gap between the blue railings and the building, where homeless people slot themselves in, to afford the small security they can. By the time we make it to the Gothic arches of the Royal Courts of Justice, the pouring rain hammers home the hardship the homeless have to endure. We seek shelter under the scaffolding opposite and learn a vicious irony which couldn't be more apt - 450 houses were knocked down to build the Royal Courts of Justice.
When a young man approaches us in rags begging: “Please help the homeless”, Viv pipes up: “It really annoys me when they come up to you dirty and scruffy. Cos there's no need to. You can get showers and clothing from day centres, some places you can even get shoes. ” Her attitude may seem unsympathetic but her reproach is not unwarranted. She has experienced life on the streets and tells us of the initiatives which provide hand outs and hostels to help people off them. For food, she suggests Dumpster diving or going to one of the daily soup runs in the Strand or on Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Below the crenulations of Lincoln's Inn, where Barristers are trained before they are called to the bar, is a quiet, clean, green square ensconced in the heart of London's Justice System, encircled by wealth and privilege. “Where lawyers live like maggots in nuts” Viv quotes from Dickens's Bleak House, based on his friend's mansion here. However, from between 1980-1993 this square had another life completely - it was known as Tent City and was home to 2000 plus homeless people. Apparently the “Land was bequeathed to the homeless” by a Lady in her will and for over a decade urban nomads made this square their camp site. In 1992 however, the local residents and the council took the homeless to court. At the third trial they lost, on the technicality that no name was written in the will. Their legacy still lives on however, in the soup run that gathers here every evening under the grandstand.
An unseen tour is beyond eye opening, it offers an insight into the life of the homeless, outside the scope of a professional guide. You can't teach people how to be resourceful; it's gained from life experience and dire necessity. What is so touching about this tour is that we are led by a woman whose resilience and indomitable optimism have allowed her to escape life on the streets. As we follow her pink Wellies through the grey drizzle of a London Sunday afternoon, Viv puts the history of our city into perspective, through the undocumented eyes of the impoverished, London's most loyal and vulnerable citizens.
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