Homelessness, In The Depths of Winter


‘Changing Times’ Column 2006 – 2007

First snow in London yesterday. It’s magical every time, but biting cold!

The first snow my Mother, brother and I saw was in Stone, Staffordshire, in 1972. We were ‘between refugee camps’ and experiencing the most physical and emotional pain ever, at the twisted hands of the weather, my aunt and uncle. We were fresh from Idi Amin’s Uganda with no possessions and very little clue about how to keep warm, shop, cook, take care of our chilblains, ourselves and each other. The snow was a miracle and the most beautiful thing we had ever seen. We kept looking up to see where it was coming from and, for a short while, we felt the magic together.

We moved to another refugee camp after Stone, to be with my father who was now in the UK, nine months after we said goodbye to him in Uganda. He was officially an enemy of the state, hounded by the secret service. He got smuggled to Italy at the eleventh hour. The man who showed up in England was not the father we’d left in Africa. We had a tough time in this second camp with him, though not as tough as in the run-down council house we moved to in rustic ’70s rural Wales.

My brother once told me, casually, that whenever he goes to a new town, he always ‘clocks’ the restaurants. Somewhere that he could keep warm on a homeless night out, on top of their security grills above the basement kitchens where he could eat scraps from their waste. He’s never had to do any of that and I hope we never will. He was five and I was eight in the first refugee camp and through our months in Stone.

I had a friend who worked for St Mungo’s charity for the homeless. He told me about an elderly lady who they found under a bridge, alive, but with frostbite on her fingers and toes. She didn’t want to be moved into a hostel. She chose to be amongst her own people, her community of ‘free’ homeless people, who she knew she’d see during the course of the day. They’d worry if she went missing.

I crept up on a sleeping man in the doorway of a disused Kensington mansion once. Having eaten one Waitrose sandwich on the way to a client, I still had another sandwich to go. So I crept up on him – so as not to wake him – and gently placed the packet near-ish to his head, then began to leave. By the time I was passing his feet he started stirring. By the time I was back on the pavement he was wide awake, shouting and cussing at me, throwing ‘my quality offering’ back at me. How thoughtless of me to creep up on someone so vulnerable! Shamefully, I wondered about his history and felt embarrassed by my thoughtlessness, my ego and my privileged life of comparative luxury and wealth. Shaking with upset I looked straight ahead and kept walking.

Homelessness is a big issue for me. One of my greatest fears. The fear haunts me most in the depths of winter.