This month we are delighted to have singer, guitarist and author of Poems from a Runaway Ben Westwood contributing to Jimmy’s Corner. Many of our posts look at the system that causes homelessness, housing inequality and how we can make change. This time, Ben offers an unadulterated view of sleeping rough on the streets of London, based on his own experience at a time when homelessness continues to rise.
Many of you have never heard of me, but when I was ten years old I was running away from home and sleeping in car parks, parks and public toilets.
By thirteen I was sleeping on the streets of Central London. Firstly around Victoria station before making myself a somewhat semi-permanent resident of Piccadilly.
Despite my home being a dusty, dirty and smelly doorway that had been shared by the back entrance of a nightclub and a Lebanese restaurant, it had been a somewhat lucrative W1 location considering, with Green Park being my front garden just a few feet across the road and the Ritz hotel being only a glance away. My most famous neighbour was the queen, whom lived just the other side of my front garden, which of course as a Royal Park it’s actually hers but, ya know.
I guess my perception of homelessness despite being a young runaway was that of a view from someone that largely avoided dipping my toes into what I knew was dangerous territory.
I’d already learned by thirteen that hard drugs would only send me down a spiral of destruction and that I couldn’t trust everyone that had offered me help. Once you’ve accepted some of those offers and find yourself manipulated or even kidnapped, you tend to sometimes develop barriers which can actually be useful and life-saving at times, despite becoming both a blessing and a curse later on in life.
I look back at the young runaway teen me and see an adventurous yet positively skittish character that had been still able to savour some memorable and inspiring moments with others. I often found nearly everyone had asked me if I was on drugs simply because they saw me living on the streets. Despite me truthfully telling them I wasn’t, I could sense not many of them believed me.
Anyone a little more clued up on street-life probably had a better chance of guessing correct.
There’s a lot more out there drink and drug free than I think many people realise.
Perhaps people don’t always take so much notice of the bag ladies, war veterans, those suffering with trauma and others with undiagnosed or untreated mental health and cognitive issues – simply because those people despite being in plain sight often don’t tug on your sleeves and pull a desperate-looking face for spare change.
Even though I was a runaway child or young teenager, my story can be translated for people of all ages because trauma, loneliness and unprocessed emotional confusion can lead anyone to become homeless no matter what their age or background.
I guess some people have a hard time imagining someone bedding down in a doorway that speaks with a well-to-do accent, but it’s more common than a lot of people probably realise and I indeed have met a few myself.