Homelessness in South London: ‘You’re always tired, always hungry and living in a state of constant exhaustion’

Mark spent two years homeless in South London, struggling with addiction and his mental health. Now housed and drug-free, thanks to support from Clapham’s Ace of Clubs day centre, this extract from his collaboration with South London Stories creator JAMES HOPKIRK offers an insight into his experiences of sleeping rough.

I can still vividly remember how I felt when I got off the coach in Victoria – I was petrified, but it was a numbed, inward feeling because of the drugs I’d scored back in Wales.

It was late 2014 and I was 37 years old. It must have been about 6am and it was just getting light. I thought “I’m here now, there’s no going back,” and that was a frightening thing to realise.

My mental health was the worst it’s ever been, and that was part of what had brought me to London in the first place.

I didn’t have a rucksack or a sleeping bag – just a blanket, a change of clothes, a flask, some home-made sandwiches from my mum in a bag for life and about £80 in my pocket. It was everything I had left.

South London stories on homelesness

The last time I’d lived in London, 15 years earlier, I’d stayed in Balham and I knew I wanted to head back there – so I started walking.

Every now and then I’d stop and sit on a bench for a while – it was so depressing. I didn’t want to face the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. I was just in a daze.

I stopped by one of the bridges over the Thames and I could see all these cardboard boxes, put together like tents.

I wanted to go and talk to someone, because I thought these are the people I’ve got to get in with now, but I was too scared.

That first night I tried to sleep by Wandsworth roundabout. Looking back it’s almost comical, but at the time it was terrifying.

There was a council estate, a playground and some bushes, so I sat there and waited until it got dark.

I climbed into the bushes and pulled my blanket over me, but it wasn’t late, it was just dark and there were still loads of people walking past.

Rough sleeping outside Holy Trinity Clapham

I was convinced someone was going to see me. So I was in this bush, tired but totally paranoid, trying not to breathe too loudly, and I just thought ‘I can’t do this,’ So then there I was trying to sneak back out.

I can’t remember where I actually slept that night – I think it might have been sitting at a bus stop, not really sleeping at all.

The next night I ended up laying down in the doorway of a surgery in St John’s Hill, and that was the first night I properly slept out.

I only had a wool blanket, and I tied the handles of my bag together and held it tight to my body. I was desperate not to lose it.

I stayed in the basement of the Notre Dame Estate for a while and it was a lifesaver through the winter, because it was warm and dry.

At first we managed to keep it clean, so no one knew we were down there – but eventually this other guy ended up sleeping there and he was a nightmare. He’d leave needles all over the place – and that was when they welded the doors up.

Homeless people lost a safe, warm place because of him. After that I started sleeping over at the church on the common.

We didn’t take drugs there and we packed up each morning, so the caretaker used to bring us coffee, because we treated the place with respect.

There was a lady who used to come almost every morning on her mobility scooter with a pack of Tesco croissants, bananas, tobacco and perhaps a bottle of orange juice.

She’d tell us not to get out of our sleeping bags on her account and would stop for a chat. People like that restore your faith in humanity.

The Notre Dame Estate in Clapham, where Mark survived a winter sleeping in the basement

When you’re on the streets a lot of the time you don’t go to sleep until really late – I mean 3am late. Even then you’re cold, and you’re essentially sleeping with one eye open, never fully relaxed.

By 7am you’ve got to get up because they’re going into church – so you’re not really sleeping properly at all. In the day you’re always on the go, often just to keep warm or because you’ve been moved on, so you’re always tired, always hungry.

You’re living in a state of constant exhaustion. I moved around a bit. Sometimes I’d find different places to sleep to get away from people at the church who’d latched on to me.

Doorways, backstreets – anywhere, really, just where other people wouldn’t know where I was.

When things got really bad I started shoplifting. I always stole from big supermarkets and sold to small shops, that was how I justified it to myself – but I knew it was wrong.

At first it was easy, but there’s only so long you can get away with it. As soon as you get caught a couple of times, you get caught every time. Eventually I got arrested and went to court.

The magistrate told me that he could see I was in a bad place and that I didn’t have a record – but he said you can’t keep doing this, and I was ordered to pay a fine.

I felt so ashamed. I knew I had to stop, but I was homeless and I really was in a bad way. So what do you do?

I remember the very first place I sat down to beg – it was just down from the Barclays Bank in Clapham High Street, because that felt too intimidating.

So I sat there with my hood up, cup between my legs. It was just total desperation at that point.

I can’t explain how hard it is, how much courage it takes, to actually sit between two cashpoints and ask for money. The truth is in London you can get by like this, and for a while I did, but it was soul destroying.

Read Mark’s full story at southlondonstories.com/mark

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