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From Tourist to Homeless: A Canterbury Story

Jesse Bedayn

Jesse Bedayn, InQuire’s Newspaper Opinion Editor, is a California native who has moved to England for his university education. His writing is largely political and philosophical, but extends to fictional and autobiographical short stories and poetry.

On the morning of 1 March 2018, in the Catching Lives homeless shelter, Eileen Wallis reached for the hand of her son, Rob Wallis, but his hand was unusually chilly.

Louise, another Catching Lives client, told me that Eileen had left the security of her home to help her son on the street, but this particular morning, Eileen woke up having lost him. She “knew he was ill,” a mutual friend told me, “but this came completely out of the blue and I am devastated.”

Louise, who talked to me in the offices of Catching Lives, came back to the charity that morning to find police, and Rob’s body, stiff and cold, being taken out the back door. When Louise saw the body, she burst into tears – she had known “he was not going to make it, that he was a dead man walking.”

Through bursts of tears, Louise told me all about this poor lost soul. She can tell, she says again, who the lost souls are, she’s intuitive, she says. Coming to Catching Lives has shown her “the whole spectrum of homelessness: some of them lost souls, most of them lost souls, but then again, some of them will rise.” She lists names of friends she has made at the centre—Sarah, Mike, Joanna—friends who have found homes off the street. Louise knows of the homeless world because she has had her own unexpected, traumatising experience within it.

For 27 years Louise worked as a project manager in London, implementing accounting systems in Europe and the US. It was a “very interesting but very disheartening” career, she admits, and she ended up quitting and moving to Hastings with her husband.

Last January, however, her husband’s father was diagnosed as having a serious heart condition, and he had to fly back to his native Brazil. While her husband was gone, Louise decided to visit Canterbury as a tourist, entertaining thoughts of a move from Hastings to Canterbury. She stayed in Canterbury for three months, “three months of joy,” she said. But when she tried to extend her stay in the B&B which she was calling home her card was suddenly declined. There had been a mistake, and £2,480 had been removed from her account by a government body. “So I was homeless, penniless, I had no friends in Canterbury; but ‘I thought, Louise, you can figure this out.’”

Louise was homeless for three weeks. She “only had a black suitcase, I didn’t have many clothes because I was going to buy clothes in the charity shop, but everything was tied up.” She lived behind Waitrose where an overhang became Louise’s shelter. She used a pallet of wood to set up a leen-to, trying to hide herself from the greater world, but she “was cold and scared by the drug dealers that frequented the area and the hysteria of the clubs.” Every day she would leave at 7am, before the shop owner appeard for work, and would come back about 6pm, when they had gone home, “spending all day at the public library with no cash, nothing.” She wasn’t begging, she was hiding. I asked her why she didn’t seek help, “I think a bit of pride.” she said, “Not pride because I am better than a shelter, but more of a feeling that I can do this.”

When Peter, a Porchlight volunteer who seeks out victims of homelessness on the streets, found her, she refused his pleas to find help. But by the third week, “it was getting bitter, all my toes were black, and my feet and my legs were swollen. I had no sleeping bag, I had nothing.” She felt unbalanced, and her sight was becoming confused, “it was very strange.” Finally, Louise agreed to go to Catching Lives.

She had one final journey to make, from her rough lean-to to the Catching Lives Centre. She remembers standing 100ft from the Centre, feeling light-headed and disoriented, but convinced that she could do it. At the door her consciousness began to dim and she collapsed. “Everything was shutting down, it was three weeks of…” She wasn’t able to finish the sentence, as the emotion brought a deluge of tears. She finally stammered, with heartfelt gratitude, “They literally saved my life.”

She has now found a place to live and will soon have a tax refund of the £2,480, which will allow her to resume life with her husband, in her new home. “Your life can change just like that,” she repeats, with greater emphasis, “I never planned for this, I didn’t have a crystal ball to show me I was going to be homeless.”

She was not surpised when I told her that, according to Porchlight, there has been a 30% rise in Canterbury homelessness. “I have met a lot of people here who became homeless in unexpected ways: their relationship finished or they lost their job. It can happen to anyone, and in any of many ways.” She hopes that we can all understand that we may never know the stories of the men and women we pass on the street, but we can always know that they are kin – we’re all in this together.

The best thing someone can do, beyond offering a couple of pounds, is what Catching Lives, she says, does so well: “offering them dignity by interacting with them as a fellow human being.”

Even though Rob, Eileen’s son, may have been a lost soul, Eileen never viewed him as less-than: she applied to him the same unconditional motherly love he would have received as an affluent son. Louise now knows that just as important as a couple quid proffered by a sympathetic passer-by, those people on the side of the street with an open hat and no food need acknowledgment, dignity, a cup of something warm, and someone to look them in the eye. “Enough of putting them down,” Louise sternly says, “they are down enough, they are on the floor, beneath the floor they are dead.”

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