Poor People series 1 – the homeless man and the lost girl

The Guardian, August 27 1994

Bob Easton was half asleep the first time he saw her. He was lying in the doorway of the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand, well wrapped up in his sleeping bag and his blankets, and on an ordinary night he would probably have been fast asleep by now. But it was Friday, the worst night of the week on the streets, when you’re more likely than ever to get a kick in the ribs from some lager lover, so Bob Easton had one eye open for trouble, which is how he came to spot Sharon.

She looked completely lost, wandering along the Strand in the dark with a little black jacket pulled tight around her top. He could tell she was young, and there was something about the way she moved that made Bob think she was worried. He had seen the kind of trouble these young people could get into, so he caught her eye and she trotted straight over and told him she had nowhere to go. “I’m scared,” she said.

“I’m not bloody surprised you’re scared,” muttered Bob.

And when she asked if she could come in there with him, he said that was all right, if that’s what she wanted, and so she ducked into his doorway, slipped into his pile of bedding, pulled a couple of blankets over her head and told him not to let anyone know she was there.

Sharon was soon asleep, but Bob Easton lay awake for a while, checking the passers-by and wondering whether this was all together a good idea. He had been living on the streets of London for the best part of eleven years now and he had learned a lot about survival and, in particular, he had learned that the streets are no place for friendship. He knew a lot of people out there and he liked some of them well enough and he was perfectly happy to stop and pass the time of day with them but when push came to shove, he always reckoned he was on his own. So far as he could see, that was the only way to survive – find your own food, guard your own patch, each man for himself. It was a bloody jungle out there, Bob always said.

And when he woke up early the next morning and found that she was still with him, he wondered a little more. She was a cheerful little thing in the daylight but she was pretty guarded when it came to talking about herself. She said her name was Sharon Gibson. Bob very much doubted that. The streets were full of people who were hiding from something, covering their tracks with dodgy names. She told him she was 18, but, to his eye, she looked a fair bit younger, which worried him, because a young girl on the streets is nothing but trouble.

He was tempted to watch her walk away, until she let on a little of what she had been through. She was in a complete mess. It seemed she had been living rough for some time and she had broken up with some bloke and she had been messing around with drugs, too. Bob wondered if it could have been some dealer that had made her get so frightened the night before. She had no money at all, and the only possession she seemed to care about was her little black jacket. She said she begged a lot. Then she admitted she had been working round Kings Cross, selling herself for £20 pokes. Bob shook his head and decided he had better break his own rules, just for the morning. “Come along with me,” he said.

At that moment, he was still thinking it would be simple. He’d take her along to the DSS office in Chadwick Street, he’d get her to sign on, she’d get some money and that’d keep her away from the punters and the dealers while she sorted herself out. And then he’d go back to his doorway alone. He sat in the waiting area at the DSS and watched while she gave her details to the counter clerk and, within minutes, he could see his plan falling apart. The clerk sent her round the corner to Youth Employment. Bob knew the DSS – in a former life he’d worked for them for 14 years – and if they were sending her to Youth Employment, it meant she was under 18 and they wouldn’t give her a penny.

The two of them trudged away from the DSS, empty handed. Bob had no idea what to do now. He didn’t see how he could abandon her. She was just a child, wandering along a ledge with no idea of how bad the fall would be if she put a foot wrong. But he didn’t want her. She’d mess up his life and, anyway, he had never been too good at being close with people.

He had always been shy and quiet. He’d lived with his parents in Bournemouth and worked in the social security office down the road, always subdued, sometimes even lonely, but happy enough. Then just about everything had gone wrong: he’d lost his job because he couldn’t cope with trying to sort out all the claimants’ problems; both his parents had died suddenly; he’d tried to set up a little business with the money they left him, but the whole thing had been a disaster and he’d started drinking and ended up bankrupt. He’d not just lost his family and all his money, but he’d lost his self-respect, too, and so he’d headed for London with nothing. And all these eleven years since then, it had suited him to stay away from people. But then again, this Sharon was a cheerful little thing, very pleasant in her way, he thought. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to try and help her a little more. He could see no-one else was going to.

For three or four weeks, it went well. Bob had a bright idea and got her selling the Big Issue. By day, they’d haunt the pavements of the Strand, selling the magazine, stopping now and then for a cup of tea or a cake, and by night, they’d bed down in their doorway together. There was no sex in this. He was at least 30 years older than her. It was more father and daughter, and Bob was quite proud of her. Sometimes they’d split the work and she’d take one side of the street while he worked the other, and she’d always come back and give him everything she’d earned, so they could divide it between them. She was taking no drugs. She never went near Kings Cross. The truth was, he had started to enjoy having her around. Then the boyfriend came back.

He was a punk called Mick with tattoos on his arms and a bright yellow slash of Mohican hair running down his scalp. Sharon had told Bob a bit about him, how she’d met him on the streets and they’d started spending all their time together, with her doing some begging and him selling hot dogs from a stand in Covent Garden, and then how they’d split up. Bob had forgotten all about him, but now suddenly here he was. Bob watched him talking to Sharon and saw her come across to him and heard her say she wanted to go off with him. “Is that all right?” she asked.

“Course it is,” said Bob who tended to talk down at his feet when he was shy. “I’m just looking after you. We’re not following each other around the streets”.

That night, for the first time in nearly a month, Bob slept alone on the steps of the Vaudeville Theatre. It didn’t feel good. He was not about to say he missed her, whatever the truth might be, but he knew very well that he was worried about her. Bob had learned how to survive on the streets. His face might be flushed purple by the weather and past bouts of boozing, but he was well-organised and clean, often with a collar and tie. A lot of the old homeless were like that.

They never begged, they knew where to find the hand-outs, where to get a free shower or clean clothes, and some of them led very stable lives – like the old black fellow who hung around behind Lambeth Palace with his shopping trolley. Every day, he’d go off down to Borough Market and find himself some vegetables that had spilled out of a broken bag, and he’d get himself a bit of meat and takes it all back to one of the toilets where they have electric sockets and he’d plug in a little electric stove which he carries in his trolley and have himself a nice meal. There were some of them who used to mix with the crowds at art openings on the South Bank and have themselves a glass of free wine. No one would guess they were sleeping on the streets. But Bob knew it could be rough out there.

When he had first been homeless, there had been hostels all over the place, but the government had closed them down, one after another: the old Charing Cross Hospital on the Strand, the Camberwell Spike, Arlington House up in Camden, Bruce House (always known as Mother Goose) in Westminster, Carrington House. Some of them had been dirty, violent places which deserved to close – but there were several thousand beds in there and most of them had never been replaced. The government had started trying to shift people into empty flats, but that was no good for most of them who had no idea how to look after themselves. They had spilled out on to the streets.

It wasn’t just that you had no money or shelter on the street. There was illness which got worse when you were damp and hungry and worse still if doctors turned their noses up at you. There was tuberculosis now among the homeless. And there was violence turned on you, too. There had been someone setting fire to people’s bedding under the arches at Waterloo. And somehow the young homeless didn’t seem to know how to defend themselves.

When the young people had first started pouring out on the streets – when the government took away their benefits in the late 1980s – they had tried to make little communities for themselves, where they looked out for each other. They used to chase away trouble-makers and drug-dealers. They even set up little letter boxes for messages. But they were never that stable, and when the police came in and broke them up a few times, they had all fallen apart. Now they were all into the drink and some of them were into the drugs as well. And it all brought trouble on to their heads.

To get the drink and the drugs, they had to get money, so some of them stole and some of them became prostitutes and the rest of them begged, so then there was trouble with the law and, worse than that, they’d got these ‘taxers’, some of the bigger, tougher ones who ran around taking their earnings with the threat of a kicking. There wasn’t even that much money to be made out of begging. The police reckoned that when they arrested them, they usually found about £3 in their pockets. They were so vulnerable. Someone had had their cardboard ‘bash’ firebombed down in the Bull Ring subway near Waterloo. And there was a young girl down there who had been raped and horribly mutilated. No one had helped her.

When days passed with no more sign of Sharon, Bob couldn’t stand it. He hid his few belongings on a fire escape near the Strand and headed off for Kings Cross. He knew the area well enough. He had slept round there for several years when he first came to London and he knew where the girls hung out. He tramped along their beat, past Crestfield Street and Belgrove Street where the dealers sell crack in broad daylight on the pavement, past the Post Office door on Euston Road where the junkie women stand in the evenings to catch businessmen on their way home from work, round Argyle Square and up St Pancras Road, where there’s always young girls for sale. But there was no sign of her.

He trudged back to the Strand, feeling more anxious than he could explain. For the next several weeks, he had nothing but worry for company and then, without warning, she was there again. She just arrived one day and moved back into the doorway as if she had never been away, with her hands in the pockets of her little black jacket and a big grin on her face. She looked a little rough. She had been in and out of all kinds of danger which she barely seemed to recognise – she had been arrested for soliciting and for begging – but the main thing was that she was back in his doorway, where he could keep an eye on her, where she said she felt safe. It warmed his heart to see her.

From time to time now, she slipped away from him again, usually when Mick or some other young man came by and started whispering about drugs they had for her or some other little enticement. Bob always shrugged and wished she wouldn’t go, but she always came back to him cheerful and smiling. He began to feel he was really doing some good here, offering her one stable place in a world gone mad. He even had the courage to confront her about the drugs, but as soon as he opened his mouth, he sensed he’d gone too far. “Is it worth it?” he asked her. “For God’s sake, do something different. It’s dangerous.” She just shrugged and walked away. So he was content to be silent, to be her refuge when she needed him.

All around him, the streets were full of sadness. Most of it was secret, tucked away behind matted beards and rheumy eyes: the university physicist whose life had been ruined by schizophrenia; the senior social worker who’d studied classics at Durham and been destroyed by drink. There were some whose pain was beyond disguise.

Like Sylvie who had been sleeping rough around Lambeth ever since the war. She’d been in some kind of concentration camp as an adolescent- she still had the blue number tatooed on her skin – and there were times when she was still crazy with it and she’d stand on her bedding and yell “Yes, commandant. No commandant.” Or she’d go out on the pavement by North Lambeth Day Centre and take off her shirt and flap her naked breasts at the buses going by. Or there was old Peggy who shuffled around Waterloo Station, picking up titbits from the cafes there, her whole life bent out of shape by some faraway torment. Or Sean who had become so depressed that he had staggered up Waterloo Bridge and leaped into the Thames. The tide was out and he had broken both ankles. The streets were a kind of oblivion where people went to forget and hoped to be forgotten. Only rarely did they come to terms with the past they had left behind.

There was one strange fellow who was known as Little Michael, who spent years living round St Martin-in-the-Fields Church. He was in his 60s, he always had a fresh carnation in his button hole, which he got from Janet the flower lady on the Strand, and he was almost always drunk. He was a happy fellow. He’d sit for hours with his bottle of cider, being cheeky to the people passing by, inviting them all to give him a kiss, particularly the good-looking young men. One day, he was found dead in a doorway and, although everyone had always thought he spent all his money on drink, it turned out he had been steadily saving a little bit of cash each week for years so that he could have a big funeral service in St Martin’s. He’d quietly told Janet the flower lady about his relations. And suddenly, this lonesome alcoholic man had filled the whole church with friends and family from the life he had left behind him decades before.

But somehow Sharon seemed to have risen above all this sadness, and Bob liked to think that maybe he had a little bit to do with that. Since he’d taken her under his wing, he’d never seen her look so frightened as she had on that first night. He had no idea why she had run away from her home. He could tell from her accent she was from somewhere round Newcastle, but that was all he knew. If ever he tried to delve, she’d shut him off. The important thing was that she seemed happy and she stayed with him now for a full three weeks.

She’d get up in the morning and go off on her own, usually with Mick. She seemed to be getting very streetwise, finding out the best pitches for begging, where to get a free cup of tea, how to pick up unsold cakes at the end of the day from the pastry shop by Waterloo Bridge. She’d always come back at night time with a grin for Bob. And he’d just say “You all right then?” and they’d settle down in the doorway together. Bob liked the way she always seemed to be so merry and bright. He soon found out he was wrong.

She went off one day, in her usual way, and didn’t come back at night. And weeks later, when she did finally surface, she told him immediately that she had been in hospital because she had taken an overdose. She told him she had wanted to die. Bob struggled to make sense of it. It seemed she’d fallen in and out with Mick once too often, she had been messing about with drugs again, and Bob was pretty sure she’d been selling herself. Suddenly she just didn’t seem to know where to go or how to get there. But he wasn’t about to give up.

She had been one step away from disaster and he was determined to help her if he could. He encouraged her to stay with him during the day, selling the Big Issue, and at night, he sheltered her. He kept on gently working away at her, shaking his weather-beaten head sadly at her over her fiddling with drugs and feeling that he might finally be getting somewhere. A couple of weeks later when some bloke came along at two in the morning and started whispering to her, he wasn’t too worried. She said: “Bob I’ve got to go off for an hour. All right? See you later.”

He didn’t like it, but he was sure she would be back. When morning came and there was still no sign of her, he was puzzled. He tried not to worry – this was just the way that young people were – and he waited for her to turn up again the next time she needed a rest. He didn’t hear anything for several days until her boyfriend Mick with the Mohican hair walked by one afternoon. “You hear what’s happened to Sharon?” he said.

Bob shook his head and said he had no idea.

“She’s dead,” said Mick. “They found her in a gents toilet in New Cross.”

Bob Easton sat alone in his doorway. All along the Strand, the shoppers and the tourists came and went, homeless people panhandling the flow, taxis lining up outside the Savoy, winos crumpled in doorways, all these people. He didn’t know any of them.

He trudged off to a phone box and called the police down in New Cross but he couldn’t find anyone who knew what had happened. He tried the coroners court, but they were no good. He kept asking on the street if anyone knew about the funeral – if anyone knew what had happened to Sharon. No one knew. Someone said she had been pregnant – maybe it was from one of her punters. Bob didn’t know. He felt powerless. More than that, he felt sad.

All the time he had been helping her and trying to protect her, he had felt as though he was doing her a favour. Now that she was gone, he realised that she had been helping him, too, even though neither of them had seen it at the time. He had been a father-figure to her, but she had become like the family he had never had. It sounded soft but the truth was that she had become his friend, and he had come to like her very much.

In New Cross, the police went to work, took the fingerprints from the corpse and fed them into a computer. They didn’t belong to Sharon Gibson, aged 18, but to Deborah Brown, aged only 16, from Shildon near Newcastle, alias Sharon Gibson, alias Sharon Davison, alias Deborah Ambro, a common prostitute with convictions for soliciting, begging and numerous juvenile offences, formerly held in Aycliffe Remand Centre for 28 days, formerly housed with numerous foster parents since she first ran away from home, aged 12.

They found several scribbled notes in the pocket of her black jacket and traced her movements for the last few days. A homeless heroin addict who had a bed in a hostel near Covent Garden, had picked her up when she last broke up with Mick, and the two of them had been staggering around London together with heads full of methadone and a carrier bag full of syringes and dope. They had tried to get themselves a house together and failed. On a Friday afternoon, they had ended up in the men’s toilet at a health centre in New Cross where she had swallowed far too much methadone and collapsed in a heap on the floor where a cleaner had found her.

In Shildon, outside Newcastle, her mother and stepfather took the call from the police and asked for the body to be sent home for burial, and then they went back to the pebble-dashed semi where she had grown up to wonder why. Her teachers remembered she was always a rebel, a bright little girl who was determined to be different, the kind who would pick a fight about nothing just to prove that she wasn’t afraid. They wondered whether she was ever the same after her real father left home and they remembered how all through her first term, they had argued with her because she insisted on breaking the rules by wearing a little black jacket in class, like an emblem of her individuality.

Bob Easton couldn’t make any sense of what had happened. Sharon had left the safety of his doorway and drifted into a world he barely understood. Most of the old homeless were on the street because they were misfits of one kind or another – alcoholic, epileptic, schizophrenic, simply sad – anyone at all who was marked out by some frailty and then punished for it by the crowd. Some of them were proud to be misfits, happy to be out there on their own. And Sharon was a little like that herself, taking refuge in the streets.

But most of the young ones were different. They weren’t escaping on to the streets. There was no escape for them because the source of their pain was the whole of their lives – useless, pointless, hopeless lives. They had grown up to believe there was nothing for them in life – no real interest, no good work, no genuine help, no future worth fighting for. So they had walked out on their run-down schools and their broken families and left behind the world they had been offered, and now they sat there frowning with their backs to it, daring it to come after them. They weren’t burying their misery. It was more like they were advertising it. And those who saw them might help them or they might not. Maybe they would just be punished by the sight of them.

You could see them at seven in the morning, already at the Special Brew and the tins of Tennent’s, and then it was whacky baccy, speed, smack, crack – anything at all that might mess them up. All day, every day. They just seemed to stumble from one pointless moment to the next. They’d steal your blankets to go begging and then, when they’d finished, they’d just chuck them in the river. If they didn’t like you they’d set on you with knives and scaffold poles. While the old ones struggled to survive, the young ones seemed to be addicted to disaster. They didn’t care about anything. It wasn’t even as if they were trying to destroy themselves. They didn’t care either way. A useless, pointless, hopeless world. And Sharon had joined them.

Bob Easton sits alone now, shaking his old head. He often thinks about her, and he wants people to know what happened. He doesn’t know whether she wanted to die or whether it was simply an inevitable accident. Either way, the truth remains that one doorway was not enough of a world for her.“It seems amazing to me that this can happen in this country. No benefits. She had to make money somehow. This is what happens. They meet all the wrong people and they go into prostitution and the drugs thing. It is a spiral and it gathers speed and once you are on it, it’s bloody difficult to get off. I did my best, but when you are on the street you can’t follow someone around. She said ‘Oh, I’ll be all right’. But at the end of the day, it was a disaster. A young life like that, totally wasted.”