MY CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOLDAYS
I was born in Horsham, West Sussex and did well at school. I was also lucky enough to have a pony growing up; an 18-month
old filly actually, so we grew up together and were very close. I show-jumped for my school as well although it never got me out of P.E. class unfortunately! After getting eight ‘O’ levels and two advanced ‘O’ levels I went to Crawley Technical College to do Computer Studies and about that time my mother married a man only five years older than me. He tried to tell me how to live my life even though I was going to college and earned my own money with four part-time jobs. Very soon he became violent towards me because I would not bow down to him, and I ended up leaving home and sleeping just four hours a night on trains parked near Horsham station. I also slept in the local multi-storey car park and in an abandoned car, washing in the local public toilets and then climbing through a bedroom window when my mum was out to collect clean clothes. I’m surprised the neighbours never reported me to the police! This trouble caused my marks in the last year of college to fall from “distinction” to “pass”.
LIVING WITH MY GRANDPARENTS/GOING TO POLYTECHNIC
In the end I moved to Crawley and lived with my grandparents, which was lovely after my life at home with my young stepfather. By now I was 18 and rode a Honda CB100 motorcycle, so I had transport and with so many part-time jobs I had funds to enjoy my free time. In my summer hols I travelled to Stonehenge to be a hippy but at Summer’s end I moved to London to go to South Bank Polytechnic to do a degree in Business. It was a four-year course and I wanted to major in marketing – my college course had given me a long-lasting interest in the psychology of wanting and buying things. Unfortunately there was no student accommodation and I ended up living in a squat on the Old Kent Road with my girlfriend, who I met in a club in Kensington. I managed nearly a year of university but writing essays in a freezing squat by candlelight was not really my idea of fun (that was one of the coldest winters on record) and after having to move squats four times in six weeks I admitted defeat – I just couldn’t cope any more.
GOING TO WORK
I was offered a nice job and I took it! I worked for a man called Kevin and he ran some very successful gay nightclubs in central London including some nights at the famous Heaven. I also drove him about in his brand new Audi, worked in his office and on the reception of his clubs. A year in, Kevin offered to have me trained as a sound and lighting engineer. He wanted me to go to Paris every weekend to set up the French version of his amazingly successful club Pyramid. At the end of the night I would pack up the equipment and then drive the van back to Britain. A day before I was due to get my passport, Kevin informed me that he would be giving the job to his brother instead, as he had just lost his previous job; to say I was disappointed would be a huge understatement – for four weeks I had been looking forward to a wonderful new challenge, especially doing it in France. I left the next day and I believe two other staff left as well, in disgust at Kevin’s treatment of me. I had worked for Kevin for about three years and had no idea what to do next until I saw an advert in the window of WH Smith wanting trainee managers.
W H SMITH
I applied as a trainee stationery department manager but there were no positions available locally and I became a cash/administration office manager. I loved the fast-paced nature of the position and also the confidentiality aspect involved in doing the payroll and combating staff theft. I also controlled the payments of invoices, crediting of returns to suppliers, till results, banking, change supplies and safe checks. I really loved the busy times of year such as Back to School and Christmas – the pressure of the work gave me a challenge to really get my teeth into! Then the stationery manager told me that he was having trouble finding a member of staff capable of organising the greeting’s card department, so I took that job on in the little spare time that I had. After carrying out an analysis of card sales at home using computer print-outs, I realised that some of the companies that supplied us made very little profit for the branch. I realised that their cards were really not suitable for a branch in Peckham and after talking to the branch manager about it, I called in the head card buyer from head office and she arranged a department makeover, changing low-profit suppliers for ones more suited to the branch’s position. I really enjoyed looking through the catalogues of the new suppliers and the head buyer and I picked some wonderfully innovative new designs to adorn my new-look department. When it was all in place it was a brilliant success and I felt proud to have seen it through from inception to finish!
Later on there, I also filled in for a Deputy Manager (who oversees the news/magazine department) and I also did a month job-swap with the Stockroom Manager so that we could both get some extra branch experience. After nearly six lovely years at the Peckham branch of Smiths, head office decided that there were “too many chiefs and not enough indians”. Instead of a department manager for stationery, sounds and books they replaced them with a shop floor manager. The office and stockroom managers they replaced with an admin manager. They also decided that deputy store managers were superfluous and got rid of them too! Obviously the changes meant that they had too many department managers so they decided to make lots of us redundant. I was very nervous about being sent to another branch after hearing of one manager who started at Peckham and ended up at Gravesend instead. Head office decided to make me redundant instead. I was paid five months wages so I took a year off and travelled around the south of England, something I had been wanting to do for many years. The south coast was particularly lovely from July to September.
BEING A GARDENER
A year after leaving W H Smith I spent eleven years running my own gardening company so that I could arrange my hours around a sick partner, but this ended when my landlord sold my flat so that he could move to Saudi Arabia. It was at this moment that I met my current partner. Losing the flat had made me realise that I really had nothing in common with the guy that I had been living with for 13 years, and so I made arrangements to move temporarily to my mother’s house in a village near Worthing in West Sussex. Just 10 days before I moved there I met my partner whilst visiting a friend in hospital. He lived in a hostel near London Bridge but as soon as he realised that I would soon be moving away he told me that he didn’t want to lose me, and asked me if I would be willing to try to find a place to live with him. I couldn’t move into his hostel as it was for men only, so we became homeless together. He promised me from that day that he would always look after me and protect me and I can honestly say that he always kept his word. We slept in parks and on stairs in the Borough area and then got a room in a squat in Borough Road in an old office block. It was a lovely quiet place to start with but soon lots of strangers started appearing in the hallways. It was rather strange to get up in the morning and meet someone you had never seen before on your way to the toilet! As time went on the place became noisy and the police suddenly took an interest in it so we bought a large plastic tarpaulin and built a shelter with this and some pallets behind Southwark tube station. During the night rats would run over us and steal the bread and other food, which was a bit off-putting, to say the least! It was also during this year that my partner fell ill with an abcess in his bowel caused by an ingrown hair underneath his testicles (apparently it is more common than you would imagine) and he went into hospital to have it drained. This was the start of his long-term illness as it became a bowel fistula (an abcess that takes the path of least resistance to eat its way out).
WORTHING AND WORK
About 18 months later, my Nan died. We were getting nowhere with housing in London – we had been offered two separate hostels, miles from each other but hostels for couples did not exist. I met a lady who told us that there were some great hostels in Worthing so we moved there with high hopes. Unfortunately they couldn’t help us as a couple either, so we moved into separate places but at least we weren’t far apart. After a few months of volunteering in a charity shop, my granddad gave me a small, old car (very old actually!) and I got a job in a huge family run garden centre. One of the staff there lived on a caravan site and told me there was an old caravan for sale, so for four weeks we lived in the car and paid every penny we could towards the van and the first week’s rent. The car was tiny and cramped (an old Fiat Uno!) and our new caravan home wasn’t much better at only 16 foot long!
I worked long, hard hours at the garden centre, firstly in the garden department and then running the housewares part alongside a great girl called Mandie. Between us we ordered, warehoused, shelved and priced over 20,000 lines of goods, including textiles, kitchen goods, fake flowers, vases, stationery, home hardware packs, pictures, ornaments, toys, candles, bedding, pet toys and treats and many others! After listening to customer requests, Mandie and I asked the owner if we could start a craft department as the nearest good one was about 40 miles away and although he was unsure how popular it would be, we did some research that convinced him and a rep came in for our initial order. The crafts became a very popular part of our section, the profits exceeding even our highest hopes, although the invoice for our start-up order did make the owner pale rather!
The owner then told us that he would soon be building a new shop as the buildings we were in at that point were actually converted greenhouses which are classed as temporary structures, so he would be getting planning permission to build a permanent structure. This idea was floated for about two years and all along the owner, Mr Wiggins, kept showing all the staff the big blue-prints of the plans for the new shop. By this point there were rumours in the area that Asda were going to take over the property once planning permission had come through, but Mr Wiggins told us all not to worry, the rumours were all untrue – the new shop would be built and we would ALL have jobs there. Therefore I was completely blown away to find out that I was being made redundant as soon as Christmas was over – I left around the beginning of March and then my ex-colleague, Mandie, rang me some months later to tell me that all the remaining staff would be laid off that Christmas eve. Apparently there would be no new shop after all, Mr Wiggins had leased the property to Asda and there is now a massive store there instead!
BECOMING HOMELESS AGAIN
When I told my landlord at the caravan site that I was being made redundant, he let me have a few weeks to try to find another job. This of course was right in the middle of the worst part of the recession and although I applied for hundreds of positions, I had no luck whatsoever. After nearly five weeks my landlord told me that I would have to leave the site and find somewhere else to live. I offered to apply for Housing Benefit to pay the rent but he told me that he only wanted working tenants. By then I owed him five weeks rent so I sold my little Fiat (a step-up to a Punto by now!) to pay the debt off and left my caravan on the site as I had no way of moving it. I later heard that my landlord sold it cheaply and kept the money himself!
RETURN TO THE BIG CITY
We came back to London, as a change of scene (and also because we thought we had more chance of being housed there) and we were on the streets again – sleeping in parks or wherever it was quiet for a while (very rare indeed in the city). Due to my job having been in a freezing premises, I had become used to drinking coffee to warm myself up and this in turn had left me with an awful caffeine addiction. One morning, on waking and finding that we had no money for my morning fix of coffee, I decided to take a book to read and then sit on London Bridge in the hope that someone would offer me a much-needed cup of coffee! It worked, actually people offered breakfast and their small change too and some of them were incredibly concerned and very friendly. This led to me sitting on the bridge every morning in the week for about a year or so. I was also given clothes, toiletries, food, money, encouragement, good advice and a whole lot of care and love!!
I had signed on when I returned to London as a homeless person and every time I went to an interview I had to explain that the address part of my application was blank because I had no address. This then led to companies telling me that if I didn’t have an address then they couldn’t employ me, due to the fact that I had no links to the community. (Do people with an address HAVE LINKS to their community?). In fact, many companies have no idea what their policy is towards employing homeless people but due to fears that an untraceable employee might steal something valuable and then disappear, they soon decide, with little deep thought, that they cannot risk it. To me, I would have thought that a homeless person would work doubly hard to prove themselves and keep their position in order that they might eventually be able to afford a permanent home. One week I spent most of my Job Seeker’s money travelling to interviews and after being told for the umpteenth time that I couldn’t have the job, I decided to sign off. The Job Centre were insistent that even whilst homeless I had to look for work but it just seemed so pointless and expensive. This was just a few weeks before I started to sit on the bridge and I must admit that money was getting very tight, despite the fact that I was doing some gardening, dog-walking and decorating too, whenever I had the chance.
SOMEWHERE TO REST MY HEAD
We had been in London just over six months when I met a lady that I had done some gardening for years ago in Shepherds Bush. She told me that she had moved to Telegraph Hill near New Cross. I told her about our situation and she offered to let us leave our bags and other heavy stuff in her summer-house in her garden. This made life a lot easier and we then found a flat in a derelict block in New Cross to sleep in so we were a bit warmer and safer. I was still sitting on London Bridge at this time and making a little money so we were better off than we had been. One day a black and white cat kept putting its head round the door of the flat and looking at us. The front door was half hanging off its hinges and for several days the cat returned. I bought it some cat food and biscuits and left the bowl outside. Eventually the cat crept into the flat and then had a look around. It seemed to know where everything was and one morning I met a lady outside who lived on the estate before all the residents were moved out. She told me that the cat had originally lived in the flat we were sleeping in but its owners had moved out. They had been very cruel to the cat and when they were moving out they could not catch the cat so they left it there. Then early one cold morning, I came out and there were three dead kittens on the floor outside the front door. We were both very upset – the cat was so thin that it hadn’t looked pregnant at all. I buried the three kittens – two were black and white like the mother and the third was a beautiful silver and dark grey tabby. The mother cat was very distraught for a few days after and we gave her extra food and attention. She was still very wary of us, but occasionally one of us could give her a little stroke. The previous owners must have been really cruel to her (I later found out that the previous owners were a couple with four small children and one more on the way and that the RSPCA had taken away their dogs because the man had beaten them on the balcony of a flat in full view of the neighbours!) We called the cat Cushion and she is still with us. She is very wary of anything shaped like a broomstick, loud noises, loud voices and even any fast movement from people. After several years she has only just started sitting on our laps etc.
LIVING IN THE SUMMER-HOUSE
As the winter came in, we realised that the block we were staying in would soon be demolished and once again we would be out in the cold. When I mentioned this to my friend Sally, she told me that she couldn’t stand by and watch us freeze, so if we wanted to we could move ourselves into the summer-house too. We had to clear some stuff out into her basement and then we moved in. Within a few weeks another friend found a Calor Gas heater in a skip and when we bought a new bottle of gas we found that it worked perfectly. So along with the cat, Cushion, we had found a home for the winter! The summer-house had no electric or running water but it was situated in a garden over 100 foot long and at the back of the house was a cold tap and a lawnmower socket so we could get fresh water and charge my cheap phone. Later on, my granddad gave us a laptop that was ancient and had a kettle button for the on-off switch! It worked okay and we then bought a dongle for cheap, very, very slow internet usage. Sally had by this time gone to France to write a book about her friend’s family run vineyard so we were all alone on the property. The feeling of privacy and semi-comfort was amazing after the places we had stayed in before.
THE OLYMPIC EFFECT!
I had been sitting on London Bridge for just over a year when the police informed me that I could no longer sit there as what I was doing was classed as passive begging. They told me that everyone was to be moved off the streets in order that the people coming to see the Olympics would not realise that there were homeless people in London!! Even Boris Johnson vowed to get homeless people off the streets before the games – what he didn’t explain was that he would herd them into temporary shelters for the duration of the Olympics but then afterwards he would just dump them out on the streets again. This would make it impossible for me to earn even the few pounds a day that along with casual labour had been keeping myself and my partner. So in line with a long-thought out plan, I sought help from a church to keep an eye on a disabled friend that I looked after every day, and I went off to Vauxhall to see about training to become a Big Issue seller. I had to produce a letter from the Southwark outreach team that proved that they knew me as a local homeless person (they had visited us in our derelict block a few times and now knew we were staying in a summer-house) and I took this into the office and signed myself up for four day’s training. My training took place in Covent Garden and was an absolute disaster! When you start your first day of training you are given five free copies of the Big Issue to give you a start. In four mornings of training I only managed to sell one magazine and that at a discount! I took £1 as I was desperately hungry, and used the cash to buy a sandwich! The following week I borrowed £10 to buy eight magazines and I returned to London Bridge. All the people who helped me regularly were delighted to see me back.
SELLING THE BIG ISSUE
The first two weeks selling the Issue were brilliant – so many people bought it and my sales totals for every week were great. Then in the third week things calmed down – a lot! Some people stopped buying after showing their respect for me finally standing up and doing something pro-active such as selling. The next months were pretty hard – the money I earned every day had to cover the cost of buying the next lot of magazines as well as keeping me and my partner and cat. After a few months of struggling to get on I decided to buy a whiteboard so that I could communicate more fully with the 46-48,000 people who passed me in every rush hour. They all poured out of London Bridge Station and passed me by on going over London Bridge on their way to their jobs in the City.
THE WONDERFUL WHITEBOARD
With the aid of the board, I could now communicate with the thousands of commuters who passed me on London Bridge. The whiteboard is a wonderful way to inform, encourage and cheer people. Some of my jokes are a little lame but I think everyone realised that I was trying hard to make an honest living and this was reflected in the sales that rose very slowly but quite steadily over time. Occasionally, someone would stop and tell me how much they liked my board, how funny it was or what a brilliant idea it was even. Later on, a gentleman called Nicholas gave me a small board on which he suggested I outline the main articles in that week’s Issue. I thought this would help sales so I outlined the contents of the mag every week after he gave it to me.
A SUMMER-HOUSE WINTER
We moved into the summer-house in the Autumn and when the Winter came we really felt it. We seemed to spend all out time there either tucked up in bed or sat in front of the little Calor gas fire (when the cat wasn’t in the way!). Then as Christmas approached my friend asked us if we would like to use a flat her dad owned in Peckham to stay in comfort over the festive season. We jumped at the chance, just hoping that the cat would cope with the change of scenery! It turned out that she was very happy there and we managed to stay until February. The flat was rather grubby and had little in the way of furniture in it but it was a huge improvement over the summer-house and the kitchen and bathroom were real luxuries!
FINALLY, A FLAT
After using the flat for a month here and a month or two there the owner asked us to move in on a more permanent basis. He was suffering from cancer and he wanted us to ensure that the flat didn’t get squatted and also to let some builders in over the nest few months. We did this but I also insisted on paying him £60 rent to cover a service charge and the internet that we were using. Now in July 2016 we have been living there for about 18 months and we may be able to stay for another year.