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I'll cut my throat for you

There were six rough sleepers at the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo when we got there at 6.30am on Thursday morning. The group included a Lithuanian carpenter who had got drunk in London and missed his train back to Bognor Regis as well as two Poles who conversed intently with my colleague, a Thames Reach outreach worker who is fluent in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English. The only female in the group was a young woman – let’s call her Chloe – who swore profusely and good-humouredly at the men sleeping rough around her. Chloe’s wrist was bandaged up and her story was this: She had fallen out with her boyfriend Pete the night before and ‘split’ with him. The break-up had led Chloe to cut her wrist using a shard of glass. The Accident and Emergency department at nearby St Thomas’ Hospital had duly bandaged it up and, being unwilling to stay there overnight, she had returned to the street to sleep rough. It seemed as if her action was both a cry for help and an attempt to create a graphic symbol to reflect the trauma of the break-up which could be displayed to those around her. Chloe seemed to be around 19 years old. She was unmoved by our efforts to encourage her to return to the family home in Surrey. ‘My parents know where I am. I ring them all the time. I will go back in a few days’.

The conversation moved on to Pete, variously described by Chloe as an ‘arsehole’ ‘head-banger’ and someone she never wanted to set eyes on again. She told us that Pete had gone one step further than her and cut his throat because he was so distraught about the breakup. Well versed in the embellishment and hyperbole that frequently accompanies street stories, we thought the tale of this extreme step implausible.

After a determined but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by my outreach colleague to encourage one of the group to consider a place in a detoxification centre where they could come off of the drink, we moved on to the Webber Street day centre for the homeless run by the London Embankment Mission. The centre was full; a disparate group of people living on the margins – on the streets, in hostels, in squats - were eating breakfast and sorting their belongings in preparation for the day ahead. It included older men with the weary demeanour and watchful scepticism of the long-term homeless, a table of eastern Europeans and a younger group attracted by the showers at the centre, the use of which was controlled through the distribution of numbered tickets: ‘The shower is now available for ticket-holder 258’.

I was chatting with the admirably committed and knowledgeably manager of the centre when I noticed that Chloe had arrived and was tucking into an impressive breakfast, clearly enjoying the company and with a flush to her face that suggested the first drinks of the day had already been consumed. There was an edginess about the interactions at the centre that I remembered well from my time as an outreach worker. The sudden raised voices and flare-ups between individuals which subsided as quickly as they arose, with the staff hovering and watchful, ready to intervene if the verbal abuse should descend to physical violence.

The centre was emptying when Pete arrived. He stood before Chloe and raised his eyes to the ceiling, exposing his throat along which the sutures were bunched in a horizontal line, making it appear that he was wearing some kind of futuristic implanted necklace. Chloe’s reaction was a mixture of triumph and disdain. She screamed at him, calling him a nutter for cutting his throat, telling him to get out of her life. But at the same time, there was awe in her expression, even pride. It said: I am so important to you that you have ripped open your throat with a piece of glass. As we walked away from Webber Street, Chloe and Pete were in a tight embrace.

I’m not sure that the morning on the street with my impressive outreach colleague gave me any new insights into rough sleeping. The rough sleeping population around Waterloo is a tenth of the size that it was when I was an outreach worker in the 1980s. The Scots and the Irish have been replaced in part by Poles, Lithuanians and other central and eastern Europeans, though they comprise no more than 20% of the rough sleeping population in London overall which is still made up largely of indigenous white males between 25 and 55. Many lives are blighted by the ubiquitous super-strength lagers and ciders that society complacently accepts as part and parcel of 21st century existence.

What I was reminded of is the dangerous ambivalence towards life on the street that people like Chloe exhibit. Incomprehensible though it may be, there is an addictive thrill for some in living rough. But like all addictions it can, at least temporarily, mask the reality – the grime, grinding monotony and casual violence of street life. And this can lead to a young woman becoming over time, in the tortured vernacular of the homelessness sector, an ‘entrenched’ rough sleeper.

We have asked the police to keep a watchful eye on the Eurostar group over the next few nights and will be redoubling our efforts to re-connect Chloe with her family.


Leigh said…
very interesting, important to hear about what's going on actually.

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