21st Sept 2013, Waterloo
Upon stepping into the IMAX underpass, we were unsure of what to expect. We had been there a few times to distribute food and water to homeless people living there. Usually, we would see a few men, some asleep and most drunk. Tonight was different. We saw what looked like a homeless family; a man, woman and teenager. As we approached them it became obvious that they were not a family.
“Hi, would you like some sandwiches?”
“Yeah of course, thank you.” The teenage boy came forth and passed the plastic bags of food around to the others lying on their cardboards, making sure each only took no more than one.
“What’s your name?”
“How long have you been homeless for?”
“This time I’ve been here for three days. When I came, the French guy and British woman were already here. The three Romanians beside us came the day after me.”
We had a chat with the three Romanians, two of whom were women, and we understood that one of the women had a kidney infection and just had surgery the day before, and her one year-old daughter was still in hospital. They had come to London to seek medical treatment but could not afford accommodation. So they slept on the streets.
Curious to learn more about the homeless community in this area, we asked Liam if he could show us where the other homeless people were at that time of night. He explained that there were various locations that people would be in, but nothing was permanent. Councils and police would move homeless people along, and they would never be secure in their current spot. Nevertheless, he took us on a route that he explained was often populated by the homeless community.
As we walked, we started learning more about him.
“How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?”
“Where do you come from?”
“Kent. You know where that is?”
“I know the place. Can I ask why you came here?”
“To get away. There were a lot of people I didn’t get along with.”
It was clear that he didn’t want to reveal the real reason why he had run away from home, so we decided to leave it at that and move on.
We passed another homeless man and stopped to give him some food. “Thank you, can you spare some change please?”
“Sorry, we only give food. Where are you from?”
Liam knelt down and examined the man’s hat, which had been upturned on the floor to accept coins. As Liam examined the coins he became surprised.
“Dude, you can’t use these coins in this country, you know that? These coins, they are useless, you can’t buy anything here. You see this coin, it’s Australian, not British.” Liam picked up the coins in this guy’s hat, trying to explain to him that his coins were no good.
We spent a while trying to explain to the man that the foreign currency he had received from passer-bys were not of use in Britain. Finally seeing that our efforts were futile, Liam dug through his pocket revealing a handful of small change.
“There, this is 50p, and that’s all I’ve got to spare. Keep that with you, okay?” The Lithuanian man nodded as he took the coin from Liam, keeping it safe in his jacket.
As we passed a man selling The Big Issue magazine, Liam explained, “You know, not all these homeless guys are really homeless. Some of them they have nice proper homes. They just come out to get some money at night. You sit here for a day and you can get at least 200 quid. That’s real good money. You have to spot who’s really homeless and who’s not.”
“How do we know?”
“I’ll tell you, just take a bunch of 5p coins and go around giving them out to the homeless people. Those who are glad for that donation are really homeless, and those who are all snobby and give a look of disdain, those are in it for the money and aren’t really homeless.”
It was getting late and we had to go our separate ways. As Liam left, we pondered the complexities of being homeless, the commercialization of begging…and perhaps, what was on most of our minds, how Liam had ended up on the streets at such a young age, why he was allowed to remain so and what would happen to him in the future.
Written by Li Fang Teo