Here at Centrepoint, our research estimates around 103,000 young people are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This is only an estimation – the real number is likely to be much higher, and when you add adult homelessness into the mix, we’ve got a very real crisis on our hands.
The seriousness of the UK’s homelessness is no surreptitious fact, but the actual lives of those forced into rough sleeping remains largely uncommunicated, their voices silenced by judgement. In Tamsen Courtenay’s nonfiction book Four Feet Under, she says that what struck her in particular about the homeless people she spoke to was “that their lives are indeed secret but they are not hidden – quite the reverse – they are there, in ever-growing numbers, for everyone to see.”
Hidden in plain sight
Four Feet Under contains thirty stories from the unseen people who occupy London’s streets. Although they all find themselves in similar circumstances, their stories are wide ranging. Some are tales of extreme brutality, such as Beth, who was raped by a babysitter at age nine; or Jade, whose father gave her her first crack pipe aged 10. Others stories are just as unsettling because of their simplicity: for businessman Patrick, his Folkstone pub going bust meant he lost his business and his home all at once. Then there’s Edward, who sleeps in a tent in Regent’s Park – he has a degree in marine biology and can speak four languages.
But this isn’t just a book based on fear or sadness, it’s a tale of triumph, too – a “celebration and a lamentation,” as Courtenay puts it. She describes Jade as “engaging – a fighter, small, tough, scarred inside and out and so brave.” Then there’s Chuckie: at 21 years old, Chuckie has been homeless since being discharged from care at 16. He refuses to claim benefits, instead selling his artwork on the Strand. He has aspirations of starting a charity for disabled homeless people.
Courtenay’s previous occupations have taken her from the Home Office to broadcast journalism, working for BBC’s Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches. But after becoming disillusioned with British television, she said goodbye to England and ciao to Italy, where she and her husband have largely remained. But despite her relocation to sunnier climes, the innate urge to write this book brought her back to the streets of London, writing the stories and photographing the journey. “I learned about what the homeless dream of for the future, what they’re afraid of and what they actually feel, underneath all those dirty, torn clothes,” she said. “It was the most incredible experience.”
Seen, heard and understood
What becomes apparent from her book is you can’t paint homelessness with one brush. There are homogeneous threads that seem to run through most stories, from dwindling funds for authorities leading to stricter homelessness guidelines to the vile treatment they’ve received from the public (being beaten up and urinated on seems to be a universal experience). But all of the people Courtenay speaks to are bright, tragic, courageous, vibrant characters in their own right.
So if you’re looking to have a deeper understanding of homelessness then Courtenay’s Four Feet Under isn’t a bad place to start. Because if nothing else, these stories serve to illuminate the one thing that means the most to London’s homeless: being seen. To not just fade into the asphalt. The more we see and hear our country’s homeless people, the more we can understand how to help them. Beyond that, human contact is what makes us all feel like people. And humanity is something that money just can’t buy.