Karen was tiny, pretty, 21 years old – and lived under Waterloo bridge

After Karen died, her family told me she wasn’t really homeless, and she “liked a lot of boys”.

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I met Karen ten years ago. She was 21 years old – tiny, pretty, a blonde. She lived under Waterloo Bridge with her boyfriend, Gareth. They were addicted to heroin. They were in love.

I don’t know why Karen ran away from her home in north London. After she died, Gareth told me that she didn’t like to talk about it. He knew her favourite colour (blue) and her favourite flower (cornflowers) but he did not know why she lived with him under Waterloo Bridge, like Terry and Julie.

They were fascinating: street lovers, a mascot for their homeless friends. Everyone in Charing Cross knew them. They were getting out.

I remember Karen because of the bodies on the streets. They aren’t dead yet but they soon will be: the average age of a dead homeless woman was, in 2009, 43; for a man, 47. David Cameron’s beggar class is swelling before our eyes. It is only one of his legacies but it is the clearest indication of his indifference to suffering: the return of Gin Lane.

Street homelessness is life-threatening. Young women are sexually assaulted and propositioned; men are beaten, pissed on, set on fire. Gareth said that men often asked Karen (“a wee girl”) to go home with them; that is why he didn’t want her to beg on the streets. He begged for both of them.

One man took her home and locked her in his flat. She jumped out of the window and broke her ankles. She couldn’t walk, so Gareth carried her down the Strand like a prize; after that, they both limped.
He knew she loved him partly for the protection that he offered her. A homeless woman needs a bodyguard.

Homelessness, then, could be a choice. Some people lived on the streets because they wanted to. They were fleeing responsibility, or reality, or they lived in shame, or they were grieving. I could sense there was an odd peace to it, a freedom, a letting go. No more: housing and mental health services have vanished and the result is in the doorway. The safety net is at street level now, or slightly lower.

Karen died a few weeks after I met her. She had overdosed on bad heroin. I went to her funeral, which was remarkable: the homeless, in hats and anoraks, and the family, in black suits, sat on opposing sides of the church.

No one mentioned that she had lived under Waterloo Bridge, or how she died. Karen was buried in euphemism, and with shame. 

Karen’s stepfather’s sister telephoned to tell me that she wasn’t homeless; and that Gareth was “one of many”, because she “liked a lot of boys”.

I tried to stay in touch with Gareth and get him into rehab, but he didn’t want to go and he stopped taking my calls. I do not know where he is. He was 29 then; he will be almost 40 now. 

This article appears in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

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