29th November 2013, Soho
We found Andris outside a tube exit at Piccadilly Circus station. He sat with solemn countenance, his figure, still – almost blending in to the background of a busy London Friday night. Andris is 45, twice married, twice divorced, with three children – the youngest being two years old. He comes from Latvia, an ex-Soviet bloc country. He talks of home as being devoid of opportunities, where great inequality and corruption exists. He speaks well of London – a place where social justice is greater, with better opportunities for people like him. We ask him where he goes to gain basic amenities – St. George’s at Hanover Square, he replies. He shows us his food stamps, joking that he is not too fond of the burgers. He keeps contact with his family through Facebook, by going to the Westminster library.
Sleeping rough is tough. The hours become days. Time becomes immaterial. He speaks of a recent incident where he awoke to find his much-needed shoes had disappeared. He says he had a job once – as a deliveryman for Tesco. However after suffering months of verbal abuse, mainly racist, he says he could not take it any more, and upon venting his grief, he was dismissed. His current goal is to find a somewhere to stay, but there is an average 8-month wait for a charity shelter, and he is yet to gain the funds he needs to find a hostel.
He talks of a vicious cycle – many enter alcoholism because they are on the streets, and addiction leads to perpetuation. He fears he may fall into the same trap as he sometimes drinks to numb himself from reality. When we ask whether he will try to find another job, he replies that it is false to say that there is a lack of jobs, as he is willing to do anything, regardless of how menial, but he needs some security first, mainly shelter. Besides, all the job application forms require a permanent home address. He also laments his limited capability to communicate. It is difficult to speak English because it is hard to learn when no one will speak to you. It is difficult to ask for help when no one understands you.
Suddenly, a man approaches and hands Andris food whilst we are talking to him. We ask what he needs most – he says basic amenities are hard to come by, such as socks. It appears he enjoys the hot drinks we provide, which seem to provide him temporary respite from the harsh cold.
With a strained smile, Andris tells us that he felt grateful after spending time talking to us. Ultimately, it was a rewarding experience, and perhaps this account helps paint a more human picture of the one whom you may next see on the streets.
Written by Yeon-Ho Son