Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
HENRY STEVENSON (# 30)
Born in Bootle (Liverpool), England
Father & Mother both born in England
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: English
Henry was born into a religious, Catholic working-class family in Bootle, near Liverpool. He was the baby in his family, having three older brothers and one older sister. He first attended the local RC primary school, followed by the Catholic Savio Salesian College. “I was a bit of a rogue, to be honest,” says Henry. “I am left-handed and suffer from dyslexia, neither of which was properly recognised in those days - it wasn’t unheard of for kids to have their left hand tied behind their back to stop them from using it. I did manage to finish school, however, and to get some exams, but I must say that I found it all a bit of a struggle and certainly not much fun. I was frequently unable to cope in class and sometimes resorted to truanting just to get away from lessons. But while I was not at all academic, I did excel in metalwork and woodwork - I was always good with my hands.” Henry was mightily relieved to leave formal education when he finished school at the age of 16.
In a recent interview, Henry continues: “I just walked into the Job Centre and walked out with a job. Those were the days!” Henry worked in a paper mill for four years and then, in 1983, he got a job in the building trade, initially as a hod carrier, keeping the bricklayers supplied with materials, but later becoming a plasterer’s assistant. Asked about his teenage years, Henry reminisces: “I was an almost fanatical Liverpool supporter. I suppose I was a football hooligan, really,” he says with a cheeky grin. “I didn’t bother much about girls at that stage, football was the main stimulus in my life, and Liverpool F C was the love of my life.”
Then things started to go seriously wrong for Henry. As a young man, he had remained close to his school friends and they shared everything - their love of football and their social life too. Unfortunately, most of his crowd seemed to drift into alcoholism, and some into heavy drugs as well. Naturally enough, Henry followed suit and his voyage through drink and drugs lasted rather a long time, almost 10 years. At the age of 27, Henry married a girl from Manchester and, soon afterwards, they had a little girl. “Our relationship faltered because we were both dependent on drugs and one day it dawned on me that I was waking up every morning thinking of nothing else but where the next fix was coming from. I knew then that it had to end.” Henry marshalled all his strength and committed himself to a drug rehabilitation course; lasting 13 months, this was certainly not an easy journey back to ‘normal’ life. Henry continues: “I didn’t just have to leave the drugs behind but I had to give up those who were dear to me too; because I felt I couldn’t any longer stay clean and live alongside people who depended on drugs, my marriage came to an end.” Henry hoped that these sacrifices would bring about a new dawn in his life, free of drugs and the chaos they engendered, but would they?
Now aged 31, Henry decided to start his new life in Manchester but after a few uneventful years, he took the advice of a friend and determined to strike out, to try his luck in Hong Kong. He stayed there for a number of years, doing a number of different temporary jobs but nonetheless enjoying thoroughly his life in the exotic Orient; until, that is, the UK relinquished Hong Kong and returned the colony to the People’s Republic of China. Having no right to remain, Henry was obliged to come back to Manchester but only, as it turned out, for a short time. In 2003, taking the lead from another chum, he was off abroad again, this time to live in rural Holland, experiencing for the first time life ‘on the Continent’, and using his skills to work on various fibreglass products and installations. Henry still talks fondly of this calm, stable period in his life.
At the age of 44, Henry returned once more to Manchester where he was unfortunately the subject of a vicious attack: a deranged individual broke into his flat and threatened to cut his throat with a knife. After what had been many years of a generally amicable life, in the Far East and in Holland, this was a rude awakening that he was now back in a much-changed, post-Thatcherite Britain, with New Labour continuing her neo-liberal market policies with a vengeance.
Henry was traumatised by the assault and fled to stay with his brother in Liverpool but he found his home city in a sorry state too: “The area where I had lived before continued to be full of drugs - everything I fled from, years earlier - but it felt even more desperate. By now, almost any job was hard to get, certainly any job that could give you a reasonable standard of living. I’d returned home but I felt I was starting to drift again; I lost any focus to my life and began to suffer spells of deep depression. And then an event occurred that was to shake me to the core. Early one evening, after moving into what I thought was a nice, new flat, I was viciously attacked, beaten up by some crazed men with baseball bats who insisted that they had the right to maintain the property as a safe house for drug dealing and distribution, and who made it very, very clear to me that I had to be part of it too. Given my own hard-fought freedom from addiction, this was the last thing I could cope with. I felt I had no option but to just run away. This time, I headed for London, a city I didn’t know but somewhere that felt a safe distance from Manchester and Liverpool.”
By this time, Henry was no longer a young man, he was 48, and his life seemed to have fallen apart around him. He continues haltingly: “Arriving in London one cold January day, not knowing anyone, not having anywhere to stay, I was just running away, into the unknown. I had never been forced to live on the street and sleep rough before and I was totally unfamiliar with street life or, for that matter, with the services or people who might have helped me. Initially, I stayed at the back of shops and buildings around Shepherds Bush, then sometimes more centrally, in the Strand, hiding from the world. Encumbered with a sleeping bag that I’d got from a charity shop, and with a large holdall containing all my worldly goods, I walked during the day, trying to keep warm, and slept as best I could during the cold nights. I had no money and didn’t know how to get any. I drifted, sometimes starving for days or feeding out of bins, eating other people’s leftovers. I longed to be invisible: when passers-by looked at me, I felt that they must have seen me only as a social reject. Despite the fact that I didn’t use drugs or alcohol, I was clearly assumed to be an ‘addict’ or an ‘alkie’.”
“One day, I mustered up the courage to speak to another homeless person who seemed understanding and kind towards me; he advised me not to hide but to become visible instead, to be seen on the main streets so that I would be noticed by those individuals who help people in my situation. I decided to follow his advice. By that time, I had been out on London’s cold January streets for three weeks, all alone, without any help and without knowing where to turn, where to look for assistance. Then, out of growing desperation, I spoke to another homeless person on the street, at Victoria, who took pity on me and offered to take me to The Passage, an organisation that helps the homeless in London.” With the tears welling up, Henry continues: “The moment I entered their premises, I knew I was in the right place: it felt a bit as if a little light had entered my life again. After weeks of unimaginable misery on the street, I had a warm shower, had my first warm meal, and managed to wash my clothes - I felt more like a human being again.”
“But things were not that simple. In these places, the first option you’re offered is a ticket ‘home’, wherever that is - in my case, Liverpool. After what had happened to me there, this was not an option I was even willing to contemplate. So I still had no place to go but at least I now had a key worker in The Passage who taught me how to navigate the complex benefit systems that would help me to survive. But I still had nowhere to live, other than on the street, for four more months - these were the rules. If you’re sleeping rough, you can get into a day centre every morning at 8.00 am to shower, shave, wash your clothes and get some hot food, but at 2.00 in the afternoon, you are ejected on to the street once more.”
Every night, for week after week, Henry rolled out his sleeping bag close to Buckingham Palace, right next to the very heart of the Great British establishment, yet fearing for his life, guarding the bag that contained everything he had, and waiting for sunrise to get some warmth inside the day centre. “Being able to use The Passage as my address, I was able to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance; I was still homeless but no longer penniless. And I really did try to look for work, making great use of the facilities at The Passage, but with having to sleep on the street, you can just imagine how difficult a task it is to look fresh and presentable at a formal job interview. I used my spare time during the day to improve on my writing skills; I wrote articles in a magazine produced for the homeless in London, writing about my own experience of homelessness; I even wrote poetry, but sadly I failed to get any jobs.”
“Having to sleep rough for a further four months was made a touch easier by having some money and by knowing that, in the morning, there was a day centre where I could revive my spirits, but as time went by, every night on the street started to feel much longer. I kept myself to myself, to be honest, though I did occasionally talk to others in the same predicament. Unfortunately, that could often result in getting involved with groups of people who numbed their nights with alcohol and drugs, and I was determined not to go there again. Instead, I developed a sort of routine which I stuck to religiously: at 5.00 in the morning, I had a coffee at McDonald’s and then waited for Westminster Cathedral to open. There, without fail, I prayed every day and strengthened myself spiritually. After that, I would go along to The Passage to attend to my other, more earthly needs. At 2.00 pm, on emerging from the day centre, I usually went to St James’s Park and sat on a bench to watch the world go by. Mind you, the world certainly does pass you by, because you are not part of it, you are invisible - no one notices a vagrant on a bench in a park. Because I kept myself clean and tidy, I had little problem with the police. I think I must have been the best-dressed person out on the streets,” Henry comments with a smile.
“There were days when I roamed the city in the afternoons, with my sleeping bag and my heavy holdall with everything I had, battling against wind, rain and snow, somehow feeling that I had to carry on, to suffer the pain. I saw it as a sort of penance, a penance for letting this happen to me, a penance for becoming homeless. I felt that everything I was going through was a punishment for what I had done in the past, to myself and to others.” Henry may well have seen this as the cross he had to bear. Indeed, in what was perhaps an especially apt gesture, in April 2012, Henry took part in a re-enactment of Christ’s journey to Calvary during a multi-denominational Good Friday celebration in Westminster when, on behalf of The Passage and all of London’s homeless, he carried a heavy wooden cross in a procession through the streets of the capital, the very streets where he had wandered and slept only a few weeks before. Henry was one of over 6,000 homeless people who slept rough on London’s streets that year, and the number is still growing.
Asked how he coped with the terrible solitude and the sense of exclusion, being an outsider living amongst London’s teeming hordes, most of whom didn’t even notice the sleeping bags in the doorways, full of shivering, hungry human beings, Henry replied after a pause: “Of course, the sense of isolation and loneliness is acute but I wasn’t quite alone; I felt that God was with me always, I felt His presence ...” and taking a rosary from his pocket and holding it close, Henry continued: “I felt that He kept me company during those dark nights; He lay down next to me every night; and I often spoke to Him. While I was there, sleeping on the street, He kept me safe, looking over me. I was fortunate in that I was never attacked, because the streets at night can be dangerous: people get kicked, they get robbed, sometimes they get killed, and it is often the people who have absolutely nothing who are the victims.”
“During those four long months on the streets, someone started to attack and steal from homeless people sleeping on my patch, and somehow I felt that my Protector might have abandoned me, or perhaps He was testing me, but I crumpled - I could not face this hardship any longer, I had no more strength. The Passage managed to secure night accommodation for me, for 54 days, at The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields. You go in at 10.00 in the evening and are asked to leave at 7.00 in the morning. A roof above my head, something warm to drink, being able to talk to people who seemed to care: the place was modest, with no luxury, but I felt like a human being once more, I felt safe again. While you’re asleep in the warmth, they do your laundry for you, ready for the next day, so leaving at 7.00 am it was still possible for me to use The Passage for breakfast and for all the rest - but 54 nights was the limit you were allowed, with the prospect of going back to nights on the streets getting nearer every day.”
Thankfully, Henry never actually had to return to sleeping rough: he lived for a few weeks at the Missionaries of Charity in Lambeth and then, thanks to an imaginative intervention by staff at The Passage, he managed to get his first flat - on the 16th floor of a high-rise block, overlooking leafy Kilburn. Unfortunately, that was to be a brief solution only, as the building was earmarked for demolition, and Henry had to move again; he now lives in West London where he still hopes that a somewhat longer term solution might be found for him, that he might have somewhere he can at last call home.
Henry continues his search for work but this is no easy task when even young, highly-qualified people find it hard to get jobs that pay a living wage. He is not idle, however: he works as a volunteer at The Passage, happy to repay the debt he owes that excellent organisation, but also at the Thames Reach charity for the homeless. “I am starting to feel optimistic again,” says Henry. “My goal is to become an outreach worker; having survived the nightmare of homelessness myself, I feel I can help others who are newly homeless and who are struggling to survive on the streets of London. Materially, I have little but I don’t need much and I feel there is a lot I can give. I am happy to share what I have and I feel the need to get involved in the work of the organisations that helped me to escape from life on the streets, that saved my life, organisations that can help to transform the lives of those who have lost their homes, who have lost the strength to battle against their adversities any more, who have lost their way.”
“I realise now that having had a relatively happy childhood, I chose a chaotic life, the life of a football hooligan, the life of a drug addict. My brothers seem to have managed to live orderly lives, yet grew up in the same home and surroundings as me. I was the exception, I am the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Life on the streets of London was a tough experience indeed; it nearly crushed me. For the first time in my life, I felt like a total outsider. But perhaps the experience helped me to discover within myself a real will to live and to spend my life helping others who are struggling in their turn, lining the streets of London, silently crying for help. These are people who need to be listened to, who need somewhere warm, dry and safe to rest their tired heads, who need hope and who need love.”
Interview Date: 6th November 2013
Updated: 14th November 2013
To donate or to learn more about the work of The Passage, go to:
To donate or to learn more about the work of The Connection at the Church of St Martin-in-the Fields, go to:
To learn more about what Thames Reach does for homeless Londoners, go to:
Streets of London is a fresh initiative that raises awareness of homelessness and raises funds for front-line services with some great live music. To learn more, follow this link:
Henry was 48; life up north had fallen apart; he had to escape. Arriving in London one January day, knowing no-one, with no money and nowhere to stay, Henry ended up on the streets, one of the 6,000 homeless people sleeping rough in the capital that year. For the first time in his life, he was a complete outsider. Until, that is, he was thrown a lifeline: during four months on the streets, Henry’s salvation was The Passage, one of the charities that supports London’s homeless. They got him overnight accommodation at The Connection, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, step one on the road back to having his own place and the chance of a normal life again. Henry now volunteers for The Passage and for Thames Reach.
Photography: London th November 2013