Homeless life and life without a home.
To live in a hut, but a hut of excellent proportions — could there be a better aspiration?
TE Lawrence achieved this.
He built on sandy ground, below a scrubby crop of wood, a dwelling that was a grand hut or a miniature cottage depending upon one’s view.
This nest — Clouds Hill — is what is most difficult to achieve: a home.
Houses, buildings, and accommodation are common indeed.
Despite our perpetual housing shortage we construct more of these every year.
Lawrence built a home that was the antithesis to the suburban housing estates that emulate Las Vegas in offering all pleasure and no joy.
Clouds Hill is ship-like on the inside, though not through any conscious attempt to create a maritime theme through assorted nautical gewgaws.
No. Clouds Hill is a berth.
A ship is snug because limited space means that every object must have a definite place.
This includes the human objects, who must be tucked — cosy word this — into a well-hollowed cavity.
Edmund Burke observed the congruence between the small and the beautiful — a theme later taken up in hippy days by EF Schumacher.
Small, neat beauty is present in our sailing yachts, and it is present at Clouds Hill.
Lawrence was a genius, and perhaps such homes are reserved for genius.
We, the sloppy masses, must do with either too much — or too little.
We are at feast or famine in our living spaces.
Americans face particular difficulty: a surfeit of space.
There is so much space in America it must be possible to drown in it.
I would not be surprised if among the unexplained corpse files of the Fortean Times there are many deaths that could be attributed simply to the cause: embibed too much America.
Aluminum, a then wonder-metal, counterposes with wood in Clouds Hill.
Material from the aerodrome lies side-by-side with Lawrence’s sketches of the Crusader castles.
Holistic man, our Lawrence.
Our machine age is long, and our machine age sorts us into categories: lawyer, bin man, scientist, technologist, historian, and on.
Choose your faction!
Lawrence, above factions, created a home that feels sempiternal while using what was then the latest, fastest machine skin to hand.
Clouds Hill is not a family home to be sure.
But it is not a bachelor pad — if such things even exist outside erotic paperbacks from the 1960s.
Bachelors probably never come to inhabit their pads.
The pad contains the bachelor until he is decanted into a suburban container, and placed under adult — read ‘wifely’ — supervision.
Clouds Hill is Lawrence. Lawrence is Clouds Hill. This is why the home is warm to move about.
To step inside is to treat with Lawrence’s blood.
On the Euston Road there is a bed.
And on the bed there is a man.
I stare at him because it is not usual to see a bed — by which I mean mattress box, mattress, pillow, and duvet (no headboard) — on a central London pavement.
The man in the bed has been on the streets so long that dirt and suntan have formed a universal tattoo.
“Why are you looking at me? Nothing out of place here. Just a man sitting in his bed on the street.”
His face says this to me.
His face carries the defensive aggression that us humans use when we are obviously in the wrong or out of place but have no intention to change what we are doing whatsoever.
The man is not exceptional, except in the completeness of his bed.
Inside the disused telephone boxes further up the street mattresses slump into each other like girls on a night out gone sentimental with the drink.
The homeless seem better off than I remember in my youth.
They are still on the streets, though surrounded with clobber and equipment enough to fill my bedsit room.
There are duvets, computers, mobile phones, rucksacks, novels, and clothes.
This could be my mind’s deception, but I think not.
Our society’s material level has increased since my youth, and that means that everyone rises to an extent — even those in the gutter.
It is still the gutter, except with finer cast offs.
The London homeless have become more sophisticated since my youth.
The cardboard signs take inspiration from advertisements.
“I need £15 for a hostel for the night.”
(Make a specific demand if you want success, advise the psychology textbooks).
“Smile! It doesn’t hurt!”
“Would love a hot drink.”
“Would love a novel.”
There are drawings and slogans.
We must all market ourselves, even the homeless.
We hate the homeless.
Hatred is a condition where we wish someone or something to disappear.
The homeless make us angry.
This is because the homeless have power over us.
Unearned power in our conception of society.
This makes us hate.
We walk down the street with our partner. We are content in our plans.
We walk towards our office thinking about the work to be done. We are content in our plans.
We walk home from work with ideas for our family. What is for dinner? Did our child’s project work?
We are content.
Then we see the heap of clothes. We hear the appeal, “Spare a little change?”
Our plans and contentment vanish.
We feel pity or sadness.
We feel a rebuke at that person’s existence.
We have been told that ‘good’ people care for those in distress.
But we do not know how to help.
We feel helpless.
When we feel helpless we become angry.
This person on the streets wears no uniform, sits in no high office, and manages no one — but he has power over us.
He makes us feel guilt and responsibility.
He has the power to disrupt our content fantasies and plans.
We want the feeling to go away.
There are those who deal this by pretending the homeless person does not exist, perhaps only offering a stern expression in his direction.
There are those who rationalise: “He deserves it. He drinks. He takes drugs. He’s lazy. He’s a criminal. It’s a con,” or more liberally, “His mind has gone. He’s schizophrenic. He can’t help himself. There’s nothing I can do. There are professionals and charities for such matters.”
There are those who stop to offer a kind word or a little money.
But how many times in a large city can they do this until their pity (or guilt) is exhausted?
They may choose one man to help, but then they must decide how to deal with a thousand others.
And so even the generous person returns to the cycle: ignore, rationalise, or rebuke.
This is one reason why there are often explosions of anger and violence against the homeless.
“Why do you make me feel this way? Don’t you know I have a hundred problems without trying to help you? Stop! Stop making me feel guilty for what I cannot control. Stop impinging on my moment of happiness in a busy day.”
Worse, we are told by religion and morality that the people we hate are also the people who deserve our love and compassion.
This merely makes us more angry.
“Love those you hate!”
Now I feel not only hate at being made to feel guilty — but guilt at feeling hate.
And so the casual boot makes plangent contact with the tramp’s jaw.
It is that or saliva-heavy contempt: “Smelly, lazy cunt.”
Homelessness is not a unitary state.
There are levels.
Homelessness is not merely living on the streets.
Families slotted into bed and breakfast rooms for months on end and hostel hoppers are homeless too.
There are people — often anarchists or so-called New Age travellers — who take to streets and caravans for ideological reasons or simply through despair at contemporary civilization.
These people can live well off our civilization.
Their minds are usually highly refined, though they are truculent dissidents in our contemporary society — and often despised by those who adhere to our society’s diaphanous respectability.
The general contempt for these people lies in envy. They have escaped clocks and bosses — though they have only exchanged these for public contempt, and approbation.
We suffer no matter what course we choose in life.
These dissidents can dumpster dive for supermarket cast offs and play on a mother’s heart for a £10 note with ease.
This is, in part, because they are not hobbled by alcoholism, mental illness, or drugs.
The mother may still empathise with them with ease. The dissident is probably young and reasonably well kept.
The difference is in the eyes. The eyes show youthful idealism, not the flinty narrowness chipped into the cornea by drink.
They consume drugs, of course — usually LSD or marijuana. It is all about consciousness expansion.
They drink no more than the average office worker.
These dissidents can, within a week, clean themselves up to the commonly accepted norms in our society and find a minimum wage job.
This gives them an ease in their homelessness; it is an aristocratic attitude that closely resembles the hobos of old.
It was not for nothing these hobos were known as ‘gentlemen of the road.’
They tend to be arrogant ideologues and as self-righteous in their rejection of society as any fussy suburbanite is self-righteous about their middle class life.
As with suffering, we cannot escape our self-righteousness on the streets or in the suburbs.
I have had my own brief experiences with homelessness.
These were voluntary.
I had money enough saved to rent a bedsit, but was too cheap and too interested in an adventure to do so.
This meant that I did not have to suffer the indignity of begging.
I lived in my car in London for a month.
The vehicle was a reasonably compact town car. It was winter. I chose the wealthy suburb of Richmond for a base.
If one is homeless, why not live in the best area possible?
Living in a car is a tiresome business.
I learned new aspects to my car that I had not previously suspected.
The car grew very cold at night with the engine off.
A camper van is insulated, but an ordinary car is a metal cage that holds everything that is putrid while allowing much desired heat to escape.
To sleep in a car is not quite the same as sleeping outside, but it is only a small improvement.
Worse, a car is not built to breathe.
Prolonged static occupation allows condensation to built up on the inside so that in the winter a miniature climate is created that is similar to living inside a cloud.
The occupant lives in a damply uncomfortable climate made from their own breath.
This has the advantage of fogging the windows, which is a relief at first.
When driving a car the windows are invisible. The more we can see, the better; and the more we can see the more invisible become the windows.
But when sleeping in a car the windows become an immediate menace, even in a quiet area.
I became aware that I was living in a panopticon. A figure could appear at any moment looming over me — an innocent passerby becomes a threat.
And a window fogged with breathy condensation provides no real privacy; it only awakes a passerby’s suspicion that it is not a sleeper, but a sexful couple within the car.
These suspicions may quickly bring attention from the police.
I solved this problem by buying a winter car cover, which stretched over the windows and provided privacy.
But this made it difficult to exit the car and find a tree or bushes where I could find relief.
Toilet arrangements present problems for the car dweller, especially in the city where bushes and trees are sparse.
A bottle is more difficult to use in the dark than one would suspect, and without adequate cover there is a risk that the car dweller is exposing themselves to the public.
Organising a car is also a continual difficulty — even with a neat rucksack clothes escape organisation and fall into general disorder. It is difficult to find what is required without the strictest discipline.
Washing is actually fairly simple, if the car dweller is bold enough to use the cubicles in cafes.
A new perception gained from living in the car — or being homeless in general — is quite how far our island is divided by property, along with the vast number of unnoticed rules that govern our social existence.
Divided by property. Let me assure you, the division is so total and that there are divisions upon division.
We have enclosed our enclosures.
The car dweller gains new awareness as to the restrictions on parking, camping, and private land.
An ideologue who decides to become homeless voluntarily to experience the ‘freedom of the road’ quickly realises that this freedom is illusionary if they seek a quiet existence.
The roving state alerted me to the minute parceling of every space, and the possibilities that private or public authorities might move me at any moment.
In our houses and flats we may feel secure, but we are really floating on driftwoods of property that — with a keystroke to a database — may disappear, and consign us to an unwelcoming ocean of property.
This is why, in part, the ideologue who spurns society cannot really escape that society. They will merely be processed in a new way: spied upon, observed, moved on, and otherwise controlled — usually with less sympathy than if they conformed to society’s mores.
The prison of property is more open than the prison of propertylessness.
This is as a true in the countryside as in the city. I slept out in a sleeping bag near my car by a farmer’s field. But it was not too long before I realised the farmer patrolled his fields with torch each night — even though I broke no law I was under surveillance and risk of challenge.
My second experiment with a peripatetic life involved using hostels around Brighton for a month or so.
Seaside resorts attract the homeless. This has been long observed, though I am not sure why it should be the case.
The resort usually offers few opportunities for work, and — in the UK at least — resort towns have been in decline for many decades.
There are few rich pickings for begging.
How long can begging last? Our economy is already semi-cashless. Without coin or note how can we beg? Will the machine starve the tramp from existence?
I suspect not.
I read that in the 1980s San Francisco experimented with giving the homeless credit card sliders.
This may have been a joke at San Francisco’s expense, though nothing is impossible.
The homeless have smartphones now. How long before an app is made to allow a donation to a beggar? It probably already exists.
This will change the social dance because a smartphone donation will involve coming closer to the homeless beggar.
There will be more interaction than the casual coin toss.
Nostrils will fill with monied and moneyless stink.
Hostel-based homelessness has a different inflection to street homelessness.
The homeless here are the casual labourers out for work rather than beggars. They share tips about building sites and washing up jobs. They swap urgent intelligence about bosses who are ‘bastards’ prepared to give a man a push at the least excuse.
Listen on a rural train service, you will hear these moveable labourers in conference — perhaps near Stratford-Upon-Avon but heading for Grimsby.
Their lives are melodrama upon melodrama with council bureaucrats and sullen landladies.
The hostel life is more comfortable than car and street life.
The immediate dangers of violence and police intervention are limited. There is bread, butter, and jam for breakfast — easy boozing in the evenings.
There is no anxiety that one will be found drunk in a car and charged with drunk driving — or set upon while sleeping in the open air.
But a person living in this way deals with the disorganisation and dislocation associated with car life.
The hostel-dweller must also deal with sharing their berth with younger, attractive people flitting through a hostel for a lark or holiday.
These are the majority in hostels.
These are usually young people with prospects. They are going to university or on a break from their studies. As such, they present an ongoing rebuke to the homeless hosteller who is usually older, and with diminishing prospects.
And — as young people often are — the hostellers with prospects are not afraid to talk in unconfidential whispers about, “That weirdo in bed twelve who is old enough to be my dad.”
London feels like a rat’s nest.
We are all blindly crawling over each other in the tube, smearing the underground handrails with our grease, and gnawing our wonder bread sandwiches.
I look at the commuters with ears plugged by headphones, eyes plugged by phones or newspapers, and think that if the carriage disappeared with the occupants lain upon the bare tracks not one would not notice.
The city is itself dreamed into existence — we cannot say how — and then we dream within the dream.
The housing adverts tell a story.
Here is a single room split up with six bunkbeds. Here is a room for rent for the same price as an entire apartment in the West Midlands.
WOMEN ONLY. MUSLIMS ONLY. NO DSS. ONE MONTH’S RENT IN ADVANCE. NO PETS. FRIENDLY, SOCIABLE HOUSE.
The mansions divided and subdivided. The room that is filled by a bed so that the bed becomes the soft floor.
The flimsy wood-chip boards that make a shower room.
The man upstairs who never moves but smokes, smokes, smokes so that his body leaves a silhouette on the walls.
I go down to see an old coal barge that has been partitioned into eight rooms.
It is moored on the Thames in a post-industrial south-west London stretch that is pinched between wealthy Richmond and Chiswick.
The top floors are caravan-like. A Staffordshire bull terrier — dog for the angry working classes and lumpenproletariat — is pinned up there amid the smell of cannabis.
A urinal empties into the Thames. The shower is a bucket. The stove gas-canister powered.
The great barge sinks into the ooze. I imagine bodies thrown into the bog.
MISSING PERSON: HAVE YOU SEEN JOHN SINCLAIR?
JOHN, YOUR FAMILY ARE CONCERNED FOR YOUR SAFETY. PLEASE CALL THIS CONFIDENTIAL NUMBER TO CONFIRM…
Man overboard, perhaps. A disagreement about drugs, the rent — or a sexual advance refused.
In the bowels of the barge the rooms are cramped subdivisions the width of two coffins.
A padlock locks the doors, while a battery powered fluorescent light illuminates the space.
You sleep against the cold bulkhead.
“There’s a fire there. We have it on in the winter”
The fire is death, of course. I have already passed through a heavy, flammable curtain to reach the room.
I imagine choking to death on carbon monoxide, or trapped in a conventional fire — a coal dropped in drunken or stoned fumblings.
There is only one exit.
Exist past the fire.
Health and safety has not gone mad here. There is no inspector to call except — perhaps — if all goes wrong, the corner and pinch squad.
If not fire, perhaps the barge could capsize.
Drowned in the black, oozing mud.
I am glad to be on top again. The room is £250 a month. Cash in hand. The landlord has several other boats like this one. I calculate his take as £3,000 a month or so — with not a word to Her Majesty’s esteemed tax inspectorate.
His tenants: semi-homeless, Eastern European girls waitressing for the London life (fearfully rapeable on the barge), a Bulgarian carpenter, a teenage runaway, British lumpen prole drop out who deals weed, a mechanic…it takes all sorts.
Those who are saving for a fine house in the Polish countryside, or wait for their motorbike repair business to take off — and those who are waiting to die.
This is the under London, which exists a mile and a half from old Victorian mansions – quarter of a mile from executive apartments.
It looks like potential violence, rape, and death.
It looks like a 500-word piece in the Metro, a moment’s amusement or semi-concern for the dreaming commuters.
TWELVE KILLED IN BARGE TRAGEDY.
MAYOR PLEDGES TIGHTER HOUSING RULES. SPOTLIGHT ON LOCAL AUTHORITY.
My feelings on homelessness have had a threefold development: pity, suspicion, and exasperation.
When I was younger, I felt pity and sorrow for the homeless.
How could I get them out of this state? What could I do? What could society do?
I concluded that society should take charge.
This is one unfortunate aspect to welfare states and socialised services.
When we live in socialised and welfare state-heavy societies, we come to the conclusion that someone else should be responsible for whatever we see that distresses us.
This is what we pay taxes for. There should be an official, a technocrat — whether a social worker, a housing officer, or a psychologist — to deal with the problem.
This is a great relief.
We are no longer responsible for the distress we see before us. If only the state could get its act together, though it never seems to do so completely.
I also shared the belief — common among anarchists and the far left — that homelessness could be solved by simply opening up the unused houses of the rich to the homeless.
We have so many underused houses. If we opened only a few to the homeless (who number less than 100,000), could we not solve this problem in a few days?
I had a temp job at a local council housing department.
I saw a man who finally worked up the housing list. He had been on the streets.
He had been saved by the state.
A few weeks later his house had burned down.
He was an alcoholic. He drank. He left the gas on — or some other minor mistake that occurs when a man is over-laden with booze.
He was back on the streets.
I saw that it would not be possibly to wipe homelessness away in one administrative move.
The problem is not that people consciously want to be on the streets, but rather that their reasons for being there — in so far as we have reasons for anything we do — often lie in self-defeating behaviours.
We all conspire against ourselves to one extent or another, though with some people this is so pronounced that all material function falls away.
In Soho, an old man sits in the basement of a cafe every day. He has three or four large laundry bags with all his belonings.
He orders a coffee and sets up camp. He has a computer to entertain him.
He brings his own honey and marmalade to smear on a tea cake.
His home is where he is.
I hear him talk to his social worker.
He has been offered a place in a hostel. It is not the hostel he wants.
“They deal drugs there. I don’t like it.”
Beggars can — apparently — be choosers.
The social worker listens to this educated man — probably from the middle classes — as he expounds his theories about Trump’s connection to the oil industry.
His word are liminal to schizophrenia. He is not all the way there yet.
He is eccentric so far. His theories could be found on the lips of a leftist university student.
The social worker coaxes. She listens.
Has he put himself down for the housing list yet?
No. There is a problem there. He does not want to do X until he has done Y, and he does not want to do Y until he has done Z.
But Z depends on X.
“If there’s a terrorist attack I’ll be okay. I don’t think they bother about killing the homeless,” he adds helpfully.
The conversation continues its semi-circular course.
He does not really want a home. We are, most of us, despite our protestations, exactly where we want to be.
The spouse who complains about her husband, but never leaves him. The man who bitches about his job, but never quits. The child who resents their parents, but always does as told.
And the homeless man who, though he cannot admit it to the social worker or even to himself, wants to be homeless.
This is not to say that every homeless person wants to be homeless, but there is a type.
And I wager he is in the cafe basement still. I do not begrudge him his space; it is a cosy life in its way, though he faces danger — not from terrorists but from resentful drunks — he is content.
I merely wish that he washed a little more often. It would have made it easier to sit by him, perhaps even to share his honey.
My pity turned to suspicion and occasional feelings of hostility.
I had seen too many scams. I had heard too many lies.
“I lost my money for the bus.”
“I just fell off my bike. Could you spare me some money to get to the hospital?”
“My van broke down. Could you spare me some change to get the bus back to my depot?”
The last one occurred two days in a row.
On the second day I said, “How unlucky to have exactly the same problem twice in one week.”
Once, I reached into my pocket for change and gave the man who asked for it all that remained.
He threw the coins in my face.
It was not enough. No pound coins.
It was an insult to him, although it was all I had.
I became suspicious.
I looked around. There was the alcoholism, the schizophrenia, and drug addiction.
There are those who say we should only give the homeless food or a drink.
We should be suspicious.
But what about a person’s self-respect? To only offer food is to show we have no trust.
We will treat them as a child.
Better to give nothing? I do not know.
Beneath a motorway flyover, trapped between two busy arterial roads, a man has made a home.
A packing crate shack surrounded by signs that obscurely warn the world is soon to end.
Across from the hovel is a car showroom, and on the other side a hangar-like hardware store.
What strange dreams go on in that shack?
The noise never stops. The cars growl on the roads.
Those sounds are messages from God about the end times — perhaps.
Does this man want to be rescued? He cannot be comfortable, though he dreams his strange dreams fed on exhaust and endless, endless noise.
I give up.
I am given up still.
“For you have the poor always with you; but me you have not always.”