There’s nothing like carrying everything you own to make snails seem nobler. It’s 3am, and having put my life into a rucksack weeks ago, I’m plodding homelessly across London without a place to crash. Pints of coffee are catching up with me, and unlike a snail, I don’t have the option of seeping fluid as I go. There are toilets, I realise, back at Charing Cross, but because I hate u-turns more than being illogical, I decide I’m bound to bump into some. I know I’ll regret it even as I make up my mind, and sure enough, by 4.30, my kidneys are in full revolt.
They’re unexpectedly fraught, public loos. I don’t have cause to think about them much, but toilets are where police target queer men, where trans people are beaten and harassed, where forgetting wheelchair users becomes a conscious choice. Not long ago they were segregated by race and class , and it’s only recently, here and there, that they’ve been gender specific. (Ladies’ rooms, Soraya Chemaly notes, are still designed for men.) Public toilets I learn tonight, are also being hit by austerity.
Over the last decade, half the country’s conveniences have shut, with one in seven of those in service in 2010 gone by 2013, sacrificed by impoverished councils. By the new year, 600 more are expected to have closed. It recently emerged that due to London’s shortage and contracts denying them breaks, drivers for private taxi firm Uber are forced to carry spare bottles. Like them, I’m finding there’s nowhere to stop: signs at Victoria point to an all night loo nearby, only for notices to say the building shut at six. Whatever cut caused this, it must have happened recently.
London’s streets are meant to be paved with filth – the reports about Uber even declare the capital awash with piss. What’s striking is, it’s not. This isn’t Paris, whose roads are hosed down every morning, or subsiding Berlin, under siege from its own sewage. For miles, traipsing down empty roads, not so much as a crisp packet blows by. London at this hour is a vacuum, sterile and quiet as the grave, and somewhere in the contours of my spine, this bothers me.
In Manchester, David Dunnico writes, there’s just one block of public toilets left. The rest, a spokesperson explained after the council closed them, had attracted ‘vandalism and antisocial behaviour’ – in other words, people with nowhere else to go. When lavatories offer the only place to sleep, shelter or fuck, never mind defecate, shutting them should only drive those activities elsewhere – spending the night outside, I’ve learnt, means you have to loiter, lie down or urinate somewhere – but as I search for loos, other vagrants are nowhere to be seen. Why is central London still so pristine?
There are no corners in this part of town, no dim alleys to duck into. After 90 minutes of wandering, I’m desperate enough to be on the lookout, but every gap between buildings has been fenced off, every recess floodlit. Passing one side of Buckingham Palace, I resisted going behind a pillar, finding the thought strangely patriotic. Dozens of rough sleepers, I tell myself, must have scaled the outer wall, sleeping soundly on Her Majesty’s lawn, because, well, their absence elsewhere is just as uncanny. Have the homeless been snatched like children in Philip Pullman’s Oxford?
Perhaps. Since 2010, rough sleeping in London has soared, but so has state violence against those forced onto the streets. According to freedom of information requests, between 2011 and 2013 arrests for begging rose from 375 to 700. Other homeless people are banned with varying degrees of subtlety. Soup kitchens in the capital, like Manchester’s toilets, have been denounced as antisocial hubs, pushed out of residential zones by councils desperate for investors. As journalist Billy Briggs reports, the penniless can now be arrested for sitting down, a police power granted by the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2014.
Last January, councils across inner London launched two joint initiatives with the Metropolitan police. Operations Encompass and Alabama, opposed by homeless organisations, pledge to tackle antisocial conduct, “targeting those who commit such behaviour by concentrating on engaging, disrupting and deterring rough sleeping and begging” – answering extreme poverty, that is, with ASBOs and arrests. Behaviour orders used on the homeless ban their return to certain areas on pain of prison sentences – the area in question being, in the end, London itself.
TOTAL POLICING, the Met website bellows in muscular all caps: this is what those words mean. Total policing is the immune system of a political economy hiding its tracks, outlawing neediness instead of meeting human needs . It’s the long arm of the state girding bodily functions, removing places to keep warm, sit down, eat, sleep or shit, then arresting anyone who does so in the open. It’s what that tremor was along my spine, looking for private corners on streets cleansed of their homeless – the horror of my own anatomy becoming criminal.
It’s a cliché that London’s rulers see the city as diseased, a body sterilisable through aggressive treatment of germs like protesters and the visible poor. For the people in charge, it might be that, but down here London is a city, all bricks and blinking lights. The body I’m noticing is my own. If streets like these bring anything to mind, they feel like an oubliette, a cell captives fell into from above, forgotten from then on. The city’s open spaces are closing, walls moving toward each other: sink below the breadline, end up outside, and you earn an armed escort out of public consciousness.
By 5am I’ve managed to find a hostel whose receptionist takes pity: after bursting my banks behind an unlockable door, I head back to Victoria. In two hours places will reopen, meaning food, heat and a replenished supply of caffeine, so I opt to rest my legs in the station until then. By the entrance, a woman my own age asks for spare change, hoodie pulled balaclava-tight around her face. I reach for coins, only to realise a card’s all I have, and apologise, trying much too hard to sound honest. From her lack of layers, she can’t have been on the street long, but her face says she knows that line.
The station’s seats are cold, exposed to the concourse’s draughts – arranged, anyone would think, to deter all-night use – but there are kiosks, cashpoints and wifi. Fishing out the iPad, I button up my coat and sit with Battlestar Galactica, hands in pockets. Now with access to cash, I make a mental note to help hoodie girl out if I see her again, but she was heading away from here, and I doubt she’d venture inside even if she came back: throughout my stay, there are never fewer than two police officers around, ushering people out who look less than respectable with the help of security.
In Berlin, where I lived till recently, night trains harbour vagabonds of all stripes – while schwarzfahren incurs a fine, checks are infrequent, tickets cheap, discarded ones salvageable . But stations across London’s inner zones have long since been securitised: ticket barriers impede fare-dodging, with second-hand travelcards a relic of the pre-Oyster days, and since the city’s buses went cash free, they too are off limits if you rely on change. At busy hours, I’ve seen homeless people frogmarched out of stations while paying for tickets, clots in the aortae of rush hour queues.
Partly this is why I’m watching TV, earphones connecting me to space-set drama that helps block out the station tannoy. I’ve been asked why millennials are attached to our screens, why I have nowhere to live yet own shiny gadgetry, and there are plenty of reasons – my tablet lets me do my job, ask for financial help, couchsurf and keep myself amused – but principally, this iPad is a shield. Dressed in red jeans and a woollen pea coat, staring at it means the police take me for a commuter, leaving me alone while they round up people desperate for money or sleep.
In his essay ‘The Spike’, George Orwell fails to pass as a vagrant, clocked as a man of privilege by a grunt who then treats him with respect. I always thought this must be embellished – that appearances couldn’t mean that much – but right now, I’m relying on them. When 7am comes and Starbucks opens for the day, I read emails as long as I can, then sneak three hours’ undisturbed sleep, still earphoned up. On my way out, I pass a man both of whose coats are laced with holes: two hi-vis officers are telling him to come with them.
Like most people with nowhere to live, I don’t look homeless – that’s how I and people like me get by, but also what makes projects like Operation Encompass a success. Between short stays on friends’ sofas, we plan our lives around the next toilet, place to sit down or chance to sleep, as if our job were to accommodate public spaces, not vice versa: for fear of arrest, we allow public space to disrupt us. Walking for 90 minutes without loos is what privatisation actually feels like: it’s Thatcherism as urban planning, bodies as personal responsibility, and we invisible homeless are its unwilling scabs.
I like to think I’ve seen London, or at least parts of it: I saw David Cameron’s billboards at Hillingdon bus stop five years ago, saw fires at Millbank months later, then schoolchildren in police kettles; saw Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square this autumn. I like to think, too, that I understand what hostile architecture is – unsittable benches and spiky shop windows – but down here you see London in more depth. If the mudpile town was ever real, it’s been replaced by somewhere austere and Olympian, where you mind your own business and hope no one else minds you.
It’s getting on midday when I board the National Express, taking up a Bedfordshire friend’s offer of floorspace for a week, intestines now boasting the texture of rained-on compost. Opting for the middle seat at the back, I give my legs the first comfortable stretch they’ve had all night and sit straight-backed, hoping my phone battery survives the trip – then, on the motorway, succumb to semi-consciousness. Outside, a snail slurps its way across the window pane, but by the time I wake up it’s gone, slimetrail broken by clean glass. Disembarking, I grab my rucksack and head off.
Photo: Debbie Timmins/Flickr
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