Blue Tarpaulin and Bicycle Inner Tubes

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Everything else is invisible to the eyes.” Antoine De Saint Exupery

I’m struggling to comprehend what I’m seeing. People living in hedgerows, asleep in the open, I’ve just witnessed a retired couple asleep on a pathway using a curb as a pillow. You would think it’s the 1950’s but it not it’s 2019.

A rectangular pile of belongings sat in a hedgerow, neatly wrapped in Blue tarpaulin and tied with bicycle inner tubes. Lent up on this is a hand made straw brush and dustpan. The floor is swept clean all around the belongings, so neat and tidy. These belongings aren’t alone, another 5 piles in this hedgerow, another few on the opposite side, some more under a bridge, everywhere I look I see more belongings.

It’s 3am and we’re on the side of a really busy dual carriageway in central Tokyo. Just by the 2020 Olympic park.

I can’t really explain the emotions going on inside my head at this moment in time, but it’s shock, anger, and disbelief. I feel as if thou I’m a rabbit on the road pinned down by the oncoming headlamps, frozen, not able to think of what to do. The fear of being hit, by something so alien, that on coming death staring me in the face. I don’t want to be here and faced with this. My emotions can’t handle it. For gods sake I cry at DIY SOS.

There’s about eight of us in our group. We have a section of Yoyogi Park, which covers the Olympic stadium, the TV Studios and surrounding area. We met at Shibuya Station where we were placed into groups by our hosts for the evening ARCH, A student project that does street counts of the homeless, throughout the night. The taxi rank was so full with people that we decided to walk to our section of Tokyo, that we would be covering that evening.

It was a strange feeling thou as we were heading off through the crowds of party goers and tourists knowing that we were on a mission to find those forgotten voices, the hidden, the not wanted, My homeless friends. I felt for once whilst being away in a foreign country, I was doing something good, something worthwhile, life changing, for me and all the other volunteers. I wonder if any of those people knew what we were doing? If they cared, or were we just another face in the crowd, blurred through their tired drunken eyes.

It’s 2am and its still 28 degrees, so humid that you are constantly sweating, we’d just walked for nearly an hour to get to the park entrance, Matt’s in a bit of pain, he’d not long come out of hospital before we flew to Japan. He’d had a severe infection in his knee. I’m worried about him, and am regretting us walking to the start point. I know how much he cares for what we are doing, so there’s no way of stopping him. Even thou we try. My god he’s stubborn. I only know two people more stubborn, my dad and myself. When I’ve got something in my head that I’m passionate about, I just don’t stop. That’s how comes I managed to create a homeless arts festival. I wanted so much to make a space for homeless arts, I got doors slammed in my face, and walls so high put up in front of me, hurdles that were impossible to jump over. But that’s the thing thou, every barrier falls at some point. You just have to be stubborn and wait for the right time.

I‘m by the Olympic stadium, it’s beautiful, right opposite the TV studios, it’s so quiet, apart from the crickets (Well I think that’s what’s making all the noise). I could sleep rough in this part of Tokyo, it’s serene and rather nice, but it’s 2019 and no one should be sleeping rough. Not found anyone yet thou as we’ve just started the count. Looks as if thou there’s been some sort of festival going on throughout the day in the park, lots of tents and stalls set up. Tokyo in August has festivals everywhere and pretty much every day. It really is quiet thou, to quiet. We walk up to the road; take a right along to a bridge. All I’ve seen so far are a couple of bench sleepers. Cross the bridge and back along the other side of the carriageway.

Blue tarpaulin bundles start to appear. This is the moment I’ve been dreading. That moment those headlights hit me, that fear that has been in the bottom of my stomach. My head is spinning, I think I’ve been hit hard; my crumpled body has been flung into the air. I’m still frozen with fear, hit by the warm realisation that this is real and it’s happening now. My mind is back to when I was street homeless and living in my car. Some nights because of the amount of crap I would pick up of the street, I couldn’t fit in my car to sleep. Instead I would go underneath or find a bench park or someone’s garden. I was sleeping rough in North London, over by Clissord Park in Stoke Newington. I would pick up old clothing, furniture and odd crockery that the middle classes would leave outside ‘free Please Take’ would be written on the boxes. I would sell or swap these at a shop in Holloway. I found a laptop one night, ‘free to good home’ I didn’t have a home, I still took it thou and ended up swapping it for a circular saw, and exactly what every homeless person needs. I would also pick up bin bags thrown out from the local delis, full to the brim with food, this is how I survived. You see in London there is so much scope for food and money without having to beg. I would walk for miles every night looking for stuff, had massive blisters from my unwashed sweaty feet. I had two big blue IKEA bags, slung over each shoulder, if they got too heavy, I would stash one and go back to my car, where I had a small IKEA trolley. I picked up two stained glass venetian doors one night, it was so windy that when walking past the Emirates stadium, the home of Arsenal Football club, I nearly took flight, as the wind cut through there like being in a wind tunnel. How I got those to the shop without breaking I do not know.

Those bundles of belongings in the Blue Tarpaulin, The IKEA Blue bags, the walking around trying to find stuff/people, it felt as if thou this was fate, my being here in a park in Tokyo, looking for the hidden.

There were about 15 people under a bridge sleeping, belongings beside them. We go a little further and come across the little old couple using a curb for pillows. That’s me gone, my heart just stopped, the rage in my head, the anger. Why the fuck is this happening in 2019, a couple who are well past retirement age, sleeping in the street, why is no one caring for them, where’s their family? I wanted to wake them up, pick them up and put them into a hotel or something. I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents sleeping rough. It was bad enough that I had to do it. But seeing this, this is just simply wrong. It shouldn’t be like this.

A couple of days earlier I visited a Buddhist temple to place a prayer for my father. It was the 1st anniversary of his passing; the last few years before he died he finally started to understand the work that I was now doing. Why it was so important to me to shine the light on social injustice by using ART. He didn’t get it at first; he couldn’t see how art could make a difference. He struggled with my life, he never really understood me leaving the armed forces, breaking the law, always running away, calling it travelling, never understood or saw my mental health problems, saw the turmoil I was going through every single day, the trauma I had seen and had inflicted on me. The coming to terms of loosing a child and the pain that caused me for years, the hurt I had put Kel through, me not wanting to be Gay because every time I started to accept it I would be punished for it yet again, the alcohol consumption and the constant overdoses trying to end my life, the HATE of who I WAS. That changed thou in 2017 when I had my Man on Bench show at Tate Modern as part of ‘State of the Nation’ Museum of Homelessness weekend takeover. The show shone a light on homelessness in a way that humanised them. Gave us answers and got people in the room who could make a difference. That’s when dad finally understood me. Little did I know that just over a year later I would be carrying his Coffin!

My parent’s have been lucky, they had a stunning little council bungalow, a massive family to help look after them when things aren’t going great, if they lost that bungalow they would have choice of which son or daughter to come and stay with. That’s why it upset me so much to see pension aged adults sleeping rough.

Matt’s in a lot of pain, Fee and myself order him to sit down, “we’ll go over the bridge and check quickly that side and then come back to you as we need to be on this side again shortly” with that Fee, myself and the others head back over the four lane carriageway. Nao stays with Matt.

A fox led us up over the bridge and disappeared. I have a really bad feeling with what we are about to encounter. I start to count blue tarpaulin bundles, there are so many. There are shelters, no bigger than a garden shed, with skilfully made doors and windows, one had a knocker on it, another with hooks to hang your jacket, Washing lines with clothes pegged out to dry, immaculately brushed surroundings. This was all in the hedgerow on the side of the carriageway, not in the park but in the hedgerow, hidden from sight. Twenty dwellings, a small village, a pathway separating them from the park. In a few months time they will be hosting the Olympics here, what will happen to this village? These people, these human beings who are forced to live in sheds on the side of a four-lane carriageway. Let’s comprehend this. Humans forced to live next to a fucking busy four-lane carriageway. I can’t stop thinking about my folks when seeing this; I would go mental if this was happening to my family. So why, why is this happening?

Now I would love to give a straight answer here but it’s far too complicated and political to even know where to start, but I think you all know why. When you fall onto the fringes of society, (because yes humans who are homeless are still part of society, even thou they aren’t treated as such, hence the stigma and the dehumanising of said humans) you are automatically declassified and brushed away because you can no longer add value to capitalism. You become voiceless and invisible. So you see these little shelters and villages aren’t important in a society that makes you voiceless. They just ignore the fact that they exist.

Matt’s ignored Fee and myself and has crossed the bridge with Nao. We’re all silent and stunned by what we are seeing. I shouldn’t be stunned or upset by this after having come from that background. We count and log what we see and head back over the bridge. We walk down a small slope and then take a right up a hill. We split the group and take a side of the main road each. My side of the road we don’t find any other shelters or bundles. I walk alone because I need to sort out my head. It’s nearly 4am now, I’m tired, emotional and in need of coffee. I stop and just stare down a small road, it’s so beautiful, tiny traditional houses and a rail crossing with no barrier, just some lights.

Lights are coming towards me, I’m that frozen little rabbit again, but this time I move, thank god thou, as it was a dustbin lorry doing the morning round. We all come together at the top of the hill, jump into taxi’s and head to a 24-hour café to meet up with all the other groups. We collate all what we had seen, create a log and turn that into a woollen artwork.

I can’t get the Blue Tarpaulin and bike inner tubes out of my head, I’ve been spell bound by them. In the UK I see tarpaulin over cars or bikes or patching up a hole, it’s always done as temporary fix or cover. In Japan it becomes a permanent fixture, roofing, insulation, a binding to keep your belongings dry and secure. A safety net, A HOME…

David Tovey is a formerly homeless artist, educator and activist who works in a range of media.

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