Liverpool Street station at 5.45am: It’s a place of open spaces and trains soon to depart. Upstairs on the concourse, McDonalds serve breakfast to commuters soon to move.
In the corner an old man sleeps with his head in his arms. His name is Finbarr; he is 75, from Tipperary and has spent the last four hours sleeping on a night bus. He has done this the last few nights.
McDonalds in Liverpool Street offers retreat come 5am, but the hard plastic benches were never designed for sleep. Still, they accommodate weariness.
Two outreach workers called Liz and Chris are also in McDonalds. They are from an organisation called Broadway which targets rough sleepers in the City’s square mile. Their shift, when they work earlies, begins here most mornings, though the weather is untypically bad on this one.
“Finbarr, Finbarr.” Chris gently puts his hand on the man’s shoulder. Finbarr raises his head slowly from the table and squints to see through glasses with thick rims. He is dressed in an oversized cream sheepskin coat with a fur collar, a shirt patterned with blue check and a grey tie pulled neat around his neck in a Windsor knot.
“Are you Ok Finbarr,” asks Chris again in an Armagh accent. Finbarr wears the offended face of someone who has had his sleep disturbed and fumbles with hearing aids attached to both ears, left first and then right.
“What are you doing here,” asks Chris. “You have somewhere to stay! What are you doing sleeping on the night bus?”
Incoherent at first, Finbarr explains that there was fire damage to the accommodation previously provided to him in Romford.
“You’re too old to be sleeping out,” scolds Liz.
“WHAT?” says Finbarr?
“You’re too old to be sleeping out,” she leans forward.
He responds with a vacant look.
Later, Liz explains how many men Finbarr’s age return to the street because they fall behind in rent arrears.
Before we leave McDonalds, Chris writes a note on a Broadway contact-card and slides it across the table.
“Will you come down to us at 10 o’clock this morning? He asks.” You know where we are don’t you?”Finbarr nods slowly.
“Where did you get the coat,” asks Chris tugging at the fabric.
Finbarr breaks a smile: “It belonged to an ex-partner of mine,” he says.
“Do you think he’ll come,” I ask Chris as we leave in the direction of Mansion House tube station.
“Aye, should do,” he says. “He’s been down before.”
In the labyrinth of lanes behind Mansion House tube station lives Patrick. He is from Ireland, but nobody is quite sure from where. He has no addiction issues, is in his 60s and sleeps alone on a marble step comforted by two layers of cardboard.
Of lean build, he wears a woolly hat and a heavy grey jumper. He packs up his sleeping bag and ignores efforts made at communication.
“Is everything ok with you Patrick?” asks Liz. “Is there anything we can do for you?”
He continues to tidy his gear, stepping around the outreach workers, indifferent to their presence.
Patrick has been sleeping rough in the lanes behind Mansion House for two years and has yet to acknowledge the twice-weekly contact with outreach workers from Broadway.
He hasn’t talked back. Not once.
“Even if he told us to F*** off, it would be something,” says Chris afterwards. “But nothing. He acts like we’re not there, so we can’t help him or get him housed.”
Chris explains that older rough sleepers like Patrick choose locations in the city because they are quieter at night time when the last of the city workers go home and quieter again at the weekend, when they stay there.
“Patrick has no drug dependence issues so it makes it harder to understand,” says Chris. “He may be wary of social services; he probably has mental health issues. But he has a routine, they all do. You’ll find if you come down here early at weekends, some of them will have a lie-on. They take the opportunity like you would yourself at the weekend, because for them, the offices are shut.
“Patrick will probably go to the mission in Whitechapel today – a day support centre. You can get a wash there and get warm and be back here tonight. Quite a few of the rough sleepers have bank account numbers and they are able to collect their benefits. A lot of the people you see begging are drug users and have accommodation. They will get up early and get out and start trying to make money. They could have £60 by lunchtime easy.”
Down Garlick Hill and across to Cannon Street station, Liz and Chris check established sleeping locations under stairwells and behind flowerbeds. The morning has yet to brighten and the weather has yet to abate.
Chris points to hot air vents on Cloak Lane which doubles as popular warming spots; Liz talks about an Irish traveller called Tony, who slept behind the pillar supporting an overpass on Upper Thames Street – sheltered from the weather but not the noise of morning traffic streaming by.
She points into a corner and expresses relief that Tony is no longer there. On the mornings she sets out to work, she often wonders if he might be. Rough sleepers return to old habits if they leave accommodation, for whatever reason.
“We only cover the square mile,” says Chris walking on. “We can’t go any further. That’s the limit.”
We split up. Liz cuts down a pedestrian subway where Lower Thames Street makes towards Tower Hill. Below, someone is curled up in a sleeping bag beside cigarette papers and loose grains of tobacco.
“Is that you Wayne,” she asks.
…“what,” follows a tired reply?
“I’m from Broadway Outreach,” she says quietly. Do you want somewhere to stay?
“No,” he groans burying deeper into the sleeping bag.
“You know if the police come, they’ll move you on,” she says.
“Yeah, I know” he replies with a tone of indifference.
“I’ve heard of Wayne before,” she says leaving and logging the contact. “But this is the first time I’ve met him.”
Up a street level, Chris crosses through busy traffic and explains that he had spoken to a Bulgarian national asleep on the other side of the road.
Icy wind blows in from the Thames on the walk up to Tower Hill Tube station. We cut into a small adjoining park with a building shaped like portal dolman – a pillared structure capped with a roof.
“MICHAEL, “shouts Liz. “Michael are you there?” They peak around the corner but there’s no Michael and no evidence to suggest he spent this night there, or the last.
“Typical,” smiles Liz. “The one morning we have someone out with us he’s not here.”