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Concrete Jungle Survival & The Street Homeless

I needed to start somewhere and so after researching about the subject of homelessness over the Internet I came across a homeless forum. I emailed one of the members who were homeless and who was street sleeping in London, and after several days of correspondence with this person (I shall call him Tom) he agreed to meet with me on his patch in the very hub of London, to give me a one day guided tour of the London homeless scene and introduce me to several homeless people who he knew, which also included one extraordinary 34 year old homeless woman who had slept rough for several months. The following is a combination of what I witnessed on that day and the individuals I spoke with that kindly shared their experiences with me, this is their concrete jungle survival.

I am travelling up from Hampshire to London by train and the view from my window slowly turns from rural landscape to urban enclosure. I have been sitting on this train for nearly two hours and already I am feeling claustrophobic. Finally I reach my destination at London Waterloo and it was a relief to get up and stretch my legs, but I am soon met with the turmoil and confusion which comes with any city and yes there are the suited types rushing about like headless chickens running past me, they know their trodden paths only too well, but I have to stop and look for some kind of guidance from the many signs pointing me in the right direction. I have joined the flow of the masses and the noise and the constant smell of exhaust fumes soon remind me why I dislike cities and why I rarely visit them, with my own survival mechanism kicking in, warning me that this unnaturalness just does not feel right, I am just not used to it I suppose.

I had built a picture in my mind of what Tom would look like and although I was right to imagine him to have a beard, he did not otherwise look like the homeless 59 year old of how I imagined him to look, certainly you could not call him a tramp, as his clothes were clean and tidy and although not particularly fashionable, he did not stand out from the London crowd and you certainly would not guess he was homeless. I did notice his hands looked well weathered though, and his eyes like they had seen a lot in life and he was a smoker, but other than that he seemed reasonably fit and well. He carried a black eurohike 40 litre rucksack which was covered by a waterproof cover, which he later told me was to prevent anyone undoing the zips.

We walked onto the busy streets and Tom gave advice of not what to ask the street homeless, as many do not like personal questions being asked and in doing so may get violent or some may just not want to talk to me. It wasn’t long until we reached Webber Street (a charitable venue which is basically a room with tables and chairs for the homeless to meet and have free food). On walking in I find approx 50 people mostly sat either drinking coffee and chatting, a couple reading newspapers, one person was a sleep slumped over the table, two men playing chess, a group of eastern Europeans in the far corner keeping themselves to themselves and others were generally stood about. I did notice two young people looking particularly worse for wear though, their hair unkempt, fingernails overgrown and clothes scruffy. Tom offered me a cup of tea and I went and sat with a small group of people. What I soon discovered was how genuine and interesting “these kind” of people were and they all had their own story to tell. One man had worked in IT before he was homeless and had travelled all over Turkey. He scribbled a few notes and his handwriting by what I could see was very good. I was curious to find out why he did not stay in the shelters or hostels that were provided by organisations across London but instead choosing to sleep rough. His answer was simply that the hostel accommodations were not safe. He wanted me to know that he did not take drugs or was an alcoholic, just like the other 3 people who sat at the table too. (In fact it is a myth that all people living on the streets take drugs or are alcoholics). He said “the hostels were not free from violence and many men and women did not want to get mixed up with it”. Several people also agreed that the staff can be uncaring too and in some cases, bullies. I understood what he was trying to say and agreed how easily it could be to be influenced by others if it was in your face day in day out and herding drug abusers, alcoholics and people with behaviour problems together in the same confinement with others is surely a recipe for disaster. Also to go into a hostel would feel somehow a step back for a lot of homeless as they would also loose their dignity and self respect. As one said “To be put in a box with a window is not the answer for the homeless, you can decorate it and put curtains up, but at the end of the day it is just a box with a window”. Many go back on the streets because there is at least a sense of belonging to a community, its human nature not to be secluded, and I can see it could get lonely if they put people in flats without thinking of the bigger picture, with all good intentions I can see that there is not a cut and dry answer to it.

I explain that I am writing an article about survival on the streets and many soon get naturally curious and gather round. I start talking of shelter building, campfires and collecting wild foods which trigger memories when they themselves were training in the armed forces, yes some of these people are our veterans of past and present wars. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a big problem with the homeless internationally, but as Tom points out there is help out there. In fact there are charities and organisations trying to do there bit all across London for various homeless issues. But on the other side of the coin Tom also points out that the homeless is a big money spinner and many vulnerable people are being taken advantage of, the homeless actually keep a lot of people in employment, and if the homeless are all found homes they would be out of a job. A catch 22 situation? Certainly a one day walk around the city with Tom is not enough for me to make my own judgement on what he is saying, but there is a wise-ness about Tom, he has slept rough in London for 7 years and knows the system like the back of his hand. I believe him. Tom says 90% of the time it can be mundane though. Some have a structured day which they have created around charity support and this at least works for those individuals. But I think there is something missing still- a purpose of living maybe? I ask if anyone makes anything to sell, they all had to think, I don’t think anyone had asked this question before but it seemed obvious to me that they could make crafts and sell them. After some thought they agree that they know of two people who do, one makes mosaics and the other cuts drinks cans up and makes ash trays out of them” –a kind of extreme urban bushcraft maybe?
As Tom and I walk the city we pass several homeless, some are sat outside shops with old sleeping bags wrapped about their knees and some he points out in the walking crowd who pass us by. As I look up like a tourist with camera in hand, clicking away at the mountains of brick and mortar, I notice Tom is looking down at his feet, scanning the ground for any opportunity that crosses his path, in some way you could say he is tracking. But as I go out looking for wild foods and animal tracks where I live, he is tracking for his own survival in his environment. He says he survives by finding the odd 20 pence here and there, and there is a proud-ness in his voice when he says he has never asked for any state benefits. Instead he gets by on the meagre amounts or what people voluntary give to him, but he said he never begs “some people who sit begging are in fact not homeless” I could tell by the change in the tone of his voice that this annoys him greatly. He bends down for the third time that morning picking up another discarded cigarette, breaks the filter off and takes the left over tobacco out and puts it in his metal tin for a later roll up. Not being a smoker I jokingly ask “do you find a better brand of cigarette down the posh streets of London?” nipping my comment in the bud, Tom replies, “Yes, in fact I do”. We walk on and Tom is on the look out for cardboard, a fantastic material which most homeless recycle into insulation mats. You find it at the end of the day put out by the bins in front of shops, you can not store it though or hide it as most of the time it gets moved by the authorities and as it is too balky to carry around with you, you have to get a “new” piece every day. He mentions that he has lived in two large cardboard boxes joined together before now. The park benches are good too, keeping you off the damp ground and when the better weather comes homeless take to the parks, even they appreciate the space and the limited greenness of the city by finding some solitude under the trees. Taking on a more serious note about the elements I ask Tom about Hypothermia, “it amazes me Tom, that men AND women are sleeping out on our streets in -5 or more, and months at a time too”. Tom knows about hypothermia only too well, and says he saved a young persons life once (someone who wasn’t actually homeless) and in a matter of fact way he described what happened next without any kind of self praise.

 “It was early morning and the temperature the previous night was down to - 4 or 5 degrees and at that time when I found him the temperature was still below freezing, he was lying on a park bench and was dressed in only track suit bottoms and a lightweight fleece over a T shirt. Two community police officers had just pasted by without checking him, totally oblivious that he was in fact slowly dying and as I approached him he tried to get up but stumbled, his speech was slurred like he was drunk too. I at once realised that this was not a case of drunkenness, but hypothermia, the symptoms are very similar and hypothermia can easily be mistaken for drunkenness”.

Tom had called for an ambulance but before it arrived the young man had become fully unconscious, if he had not been discovered, by the sounds of it, he would of died.

“Surviving the elements are, or should be commonsense. For example I personally never take a chance with the weather, that is only fools folly and a gamble I would ultimately lose. Keeping warm and dry is essential and even in the summer months of June and July the nights can get very cold, so wrapping up accordingly and staying under some sort of roof or canopy in case of unexpected downpours is a must for me”.

This seems to be a number one priority, in that they must keep their clothes and bedding dry, but I do notice very few have waterproof coats and only one person I speak with uses a bivvy bag at night.

Approaching a homeless woman, Tom asks if she would be happy to speak with me, which she is. We both are sat and she looks 10 years older than her 34 years, she tells me she left home because her family were alcoholics. She is in a hostel now, but slept rough for several months. I find this act courageous (and let us be honest here if you are a woman and had to sleep on the streets in London by yourself how would you feel? I know I would not feel safe, no matter how many times I have slept by myself in the countryside). I make a comment that she was very brave to sleep on the streets of London by herself, but she does not acknowledge this compliment, only by the comment “you adapt and try and keep warm with blankets and you soon learn where a sheltered doorway is out of the wind, it is safer to sleep along the main roads where there is always people or traffic about too”. There is a resilience about her to not give up. Human nature seems to be the biggest risk to street homeless and drunks coming out of clubs or public bars in the early hours in particular. Tom agrees “I would guess that if there was any statistics available for attacks on street homeless people those statistics would confirm what I am saying”.

Contents of a typical street sleeper’s kit:

  • Various bag designs from rucksack/plastic bags/other shoulder bags or bag on wheels. (In some cases supermarket trolleys are used).
  • Sleeping bag which ideally is four season with a hood. (Mummy type preferred)
  • Recycled cardboard for use as an insulation mat.
  • Hygiene products.
  • Spare underwear and socks.
  • Woolly hat.
  • 1 x litre stainless steel flask/water bottle.
  • Small radio.
  • A few coins.
  • Photographs and some essential paper work, all wrapped up in a waterproof wrapper with elastic band.

One advantage in this kind of environment is free access to clean drinking water so at least you do not have to carry it with you.

But just like some people leave litter in the forest you have the same thing happening in the concrete jungle. Tom uses an office block doorway for his resting place each night (The security guard allowing Tom to sleep there as long as he leaves before 7am). “I always clear up and leave no trace each morning before I go.” But in some shop windows that we pass by there are laminated “No Sleeping” signs put up. We stroll on and Tom greets many a familiar face and I can tell he is well regarded by them, in some way he is like a voluntary mentor of the community. Certainly he has been the survival link a good many times for the less experienced homeless person who suddenly find themselves wandering the streets of London.

We continue walking on, passing the London eye to our left, crossing over Hungerford Bridge where we stop and briefly chat with someone selling The Big Issue (a magazine which homeless people sell) and is quite literally a life saver. The people who sell them are at least doing something positive for reward and not begging. We walk onto Westminster square, then Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly circus, not noticing that the sun had gone down, London is in full illumination now and our journey ends at St Mary-Le-strand where over 40 homeless people are either sat or stood under two flowering magnolia trees in front of a church, or queuing for pasta and cheese from the back of a charity van. The mobile x-ray unit has arrived for the homeless, as apparently TB is on the increase. There is free access to medical treatment, should this be necessary, but Tom retorts that he has never been fitter since sleeping on the streets and only once suffered from dehydrated. I ask several homeless people if they ever collected any wild foods from the parklands. One said they had eaten road kill when he has travelled through the countryside, and has made nettle tea but apparently you can not easily go hungry in London, so they do not tend to look for wild foods anyway. The free food given out by charities keep their energy levels up, so as long as they can physically walk to these places across London they are alright. The wildlife they mainly see are mice, brown rats, pigeons and the occasional red fox which wanders by.

I have learnt that there are various reasons why people are sleeping rough which range from having a serious drug problem, mental illness, abusing alcohol, financial difficulties, the surge of growing numbers of migrants, or just not coping with the pressures to conform with our modern day society. The street sleepers come from varying backgrounds, classes, cultures and creeds but all form a major part of the city community. In there own way they recycle, have a make do or mend attitude and so waste little, are eco friendly to the extreme, are not cluttered by unnecessary ornaments that our modern lifestyle now strives for, and due to the miles they walk each day around the city obesity amongst the street sleepers are few and far between. The men and women I met have slept on the London streets ranging from a few nights to years at a time, surviving through every season that passes. To be given just the general title of homeless does not do those individuals that I met justice somehow, and as the word home is defined in the dictionary as “the place where one lives” makes me question are they homeless or maybe they are simply just carrying out a natural human instinct to try and live a nomadic lifestyle in our modern day environment- an anthropological link from the past to be sleeping outdoors. In one way or another they have each made London their home by surviving on the streets with a survival kit made up of commonsense, grit determination, community spirit and a good sleeping bag. As one elderly gentlemen gets up and walks off into the night, he turns and makes a comment to me “life is what you make it” and if anyone knows he does, he has slept on the streets of London for over 40 years.

Written by Annette Stickler
With kind permission from the Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine Issue 17 copyright 2008


Many thanks to Tom for his support in
writing this article.



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