On our Council estate in north-east London we have a diverse group of people including some very obnoxious individuals. At the repulsive end of the spectrum our caretaker came across a woman sleeping rough in the basement of one of our tower blocks. She was sleeping on a two seater sofa and smelt to high heaven. When challenged she was clearly either drunk or on drugs. Notwithstanding the famous film The Lady in the Van which portrayed the kindly, tolerant Alan Bennett she wasn’t dealt with in that way. She was a nuisance to be removed as quickly as possible. A knee jerk reaction but what did it reveal about us and our society?
Give our caretaker his due he persisted in a non-aggressive way as he knew she wasn’t a resident. She claimed to have been visiting friends. This proved to be true when the woman actually named two of our residents. He reported back to the office, and our Estate Manager immediately contacted the police.
This was the first step. Already the rough sleeper had been promoted to being a threat when in reality all she was was a vulnerable person with catastrophic low self-esteem. She was only a threat to herself as anyone could see. But no steps were taken to ascertain what simple, compassionate things could be done for her. Simple non-threatening things like showing her where the shower was; getting her a sandwich and a cup of tea; asking if anyone could come and pick her up and whether she was on a social worker list. No. The police were called to potentially criminalise her.
The second step happened when the police arrived. Our Manager and a woman PC went to see if she was still there. She was. Whilst being spoken to by the police officer, the Manager noted how filthy she was and she had horribly ulcerated legs. When asked how she came to be on the sofa, she said “a bloke had dragged it out of one of the pram sheds for her.” The officer was reluctant to arrest her, and the Manager only wanted her off the estate, so she was told to go! Everyone in authority wanted to sweep this woman under the carpet- Out of sight, out of mind. So even though they knew that she had been rejected by her friends and was clearly ill the solution was to put her back on the streets.
The woman’s friend told us that the woman had a serious drug and drinking problem. So much so that she had slept around in order to raise cash for her habits. Her ‘social’ life resulted in her having seven children over the past ten years. Whilst she was living in her own council flat, she had gotten into trouble several times for shop-lifting. However, with the drinking and the unruly behaviour she was evicted for non- payment of the rent. Everyone knew that she led a chaotic undisciplined life but they still applied the ‘rules’ associated with making yourself intentionally homeless. Without cash or savings she was now homeless and the downward spiral of her life accelerated.
She tried a housing associations and two charities but the court order was implemented in two weeks leaving this vulnerable woman on the streets. The system was hostile to her. At rock bottom of the ladder called humanity she once again turned to prostitution to finance her life.
Alan Bennett showed that even the most vulnerable and weakest members of society deserve compassion but I’m afraid that he is very much the exception. This vulnerable woman wandered off the estate to everyone’s relief and became a problem for someone else.