I walk in and he’s the first person I see. Wearing a crisp white shirt, hair gelled to perfection, his name badge perfectly straight. I approach him cautiously, “Any chance I can use the loo?” He screws up his face and backs away. Did he hear me? I start to panic, the pressure on my bladder almost at breaking point. I’m in need of relief. The need of relief on my bladder is urgent, but also relief of the dirt and grime of London’s streets. Another person who refuses to help me.
Welcome to London.
I have been on the streets a while now, but of the seasons I find Summer the hardest. The days are warm, but the nights are cold. Layers of clothes don’t offer the comfort they do in the Winter. They only aid to make it so warm, the smell radiating from me is comparable to a festering refuse bin waiting for collection. There is no hiding the grime on my skin. Hours spent on a busy, polluted road in the sweltering heat, the sweat becomes the sticky layer the exhaust fumes are attracted to. My tired smile struggles to break through the disgust I feel for myself. I don’t blame him for walking away.
It’s busy, it must be nearing work time. I am missing my busiest footfall. My best chance of a warm croissant, the smell of which fills the air of the café. I suppress the thoughts as my mouth salivates a little. I negotiate my way through the queue, making my way to the back of the café in search for a toilet. “Sorry,” always apologising for my being there, am I not entitled to use the toilet like anyone else? I am only human.
In the bathroom I confront my reflection. I barely recognise my face, it is so tired and aged, patchy with grime. My clothes, old and worn, I certainly look the part. I take off my beanie hiding my dishevelled hair thick with oil and set about washing my face. The cool water on my hands soothes the cracks in my skin. My eyes look back, exhausted, these testing Summer hours are taking their toll. Long days on busy streets. Thousands of people walk by without so much as a second glance back to me. I am wearing the invisibility cloak made by poverty and sheer bad luck. I sit underneath it in the hope that someone will see me. A small chance of a sandwich, a warm drink or even a chat. It's been so long since I've told my story.
I was once one them, one of the busy commuters. Head down, eyes on my phone, or my polished brogues as I braced myself for a day in the office. I enjoyed my job, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t bad days. Sometimes I felt too old and cynical for the blinding enthusiasm of my young colleagues. I was called into the office one morning, and told they didn’t have a role for me any more; I was being made redundant. I had my month’s notice, but I had only worked there just shy of a year so I wasn’t entitled to any more money than that. I struggled to find new work; the mortgage didn’t get paid. It’s tough for an old dog like me to get back into an industry where they value youth above experience. Especially when youth costs a third of the price. In this economy, who can blame them.
Homelessness doesn’t just mean someone without a home. When I lost my job, I lost my identity and my purpose. As I wipe away the city dirt with a thin hand towel, I reveal the person who packed up and sold all his belongings all those years ago, when the house was repossessed and set to the streets without any one to turn to. It’s delicate, I want to tell guy in the crisp shirt, the safety net that protects all that you love; your house, your wife, your family. Any one of us could be made homeless; we have to look out for each other.