When I hear the phrase ‘The Streets of London’, it reminds me of the song: ‘Let me take you by the hand and walk you through the streets of London’ by Roger Whittaker. I thought it was a song of past poverty, but sadly that’s a wrong perception as I discovered recently and am ashamed to report.
One sunny, summers morning of July 2020, I had reason to spend eight hours walking the streets of London, while waiting for my friend to have his quarterly blood transfusion at Great Ormond Street Hospital, near Russell Square.
Not long after walking down the main road towards the river Thames at 10am, I came across a pathetic looking begging woman in her night gown and slippers. Further down the same road walking towards the river, I was approached by other men, who appeared to have been on the streets overnight and were begging for breakfast. Picture these homeless folks on a backdrop of all the shops closed and cafés stripped clean, chairs put up on tables, famous hotels with doors locked and chained up with only Covid-19 notices on display. It was very depressing.
This walk was unique, seeing things I’d never experienced before; our city so desolate and empty – I felt no pride in it as I walked. I understand London was a bleak place in wartime, though I didn’t ever see the streets then, but I found myself wondering if we’d reached the same extent or possibly worse.
Later as I walked along The Strand to Trafalgar Square, I realised how many curved corners there are around this wonderful square. Most of them seemed to be under a column canopy with doorways set back from the road edge, ideal for overnight camping in doorways of which there were many. Most, if not all, had a body asleep under cardboard. So, I did the Maths and established there were six curved corners, each with six doorways, meaning there were approximately 36 men sleeping rough in doorways, at 10am on this sunny morning in June 2020. This location being only a quarter of a mile from Downing Street- just what is going on I asked myself?
When you see so many people in these circumstances on a summer’s morning, you realise we really haven’t made any progress in curing homelessness and poverty since the writer wrote his song – ‘How can you tell me you’re lonely?’
I say to our Prime Minister, “Boris, please carry out your promise and do something about this. I know there are talks of taking these people off the streets, but does the government realise the enormity and urgency of the task? To gauge the problem seems easy being on the doorstep of Downing Street, just a few hundred yards from Trafalgar Square! Please go for a short walk up the road Boris and see for yourself, early one morning, before 10am”.
I continued my walk down Whitehall and across Horse Guards Parade into St. James’s Park only to find all public toilets closed and chained off. This walk was becoming a survival test for me! I asked a gardener what public facilities were available? None was the reply. “So what happens?” I asked.
“Use your imagination and look for secluded bushes!”
This I did only to find many others had done the same thing – not a pretty sight! This had not been thought out. Cafés in the park were selling drinks with no offer of toilet facilities. Perhaps in some small way, I had a taste of what the homeless have to cope with every day?
Further on my walk, I could hear a pin drop as I crossed the Mall by Buckingham Palace at 11am. I was the only person around, with just a few cars waiting at traffic lights up in the distance. It was quite sobering compared to the thousands of vehicles that would normally have been in this area for the Changing of the Guards at 11am, a well-known tourist attraction.
Then I proceeded up Constitution Hill to Hyde Park only to find more homeless people in the roundabout subway. One man had his mattress with a double kitchen cabinet (caravan style) either side, a dog with its bed, plus six potted plants. He was really settled in and established. He told me he’d been there for nine months and had a pregnant wife who was being looked after by the state.
To conclude I wonder if it’s possible that for some they have no choice and begging has become a way of life, giving at least a purpose each day and some form of income?
Post COVID-19 surely we can do better than this. These people need a real purpose, shelter from the doorways and subways of our towns and cities permanently. Let’s hope as the shops, cafés and hotels start to open up again, we can address this desperate and growing issue and sing a new song about ‘The Streets of London’ and all other UK cities.