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mark

Rough sleeper, Holy Trinity Clapham, November 2018. All images copyright James Hopkirk


I met Mark in 2017 through Ace of Clubs, the day centre for homeless people in Clapham that helped him to get off the street and into recovery. We worked together over the course of the next two years to try to convey some of the painful reality of his experiences of rough sleeping and heroin addiction. This is his story.

 
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Mark, Clapham Common, February 2018

Arrival

I CAN still vividly remember how I felt when I got off the coach in Victoria – I was petrified, but it was a numbed, inward feeling because of the drugs I’d scored back in Wales. 

It was late 2014 and I was 37 years old. It must have been about 6am and it was just getting light. I thought “I’m here now, there’s no going back,” and that was a frightening thing to realise. My mental health was the worst it’s ever been at that point, and that was part of what had brought me to London in the first place.  

I didn’t even have a rucksack or a sleeping bag – just a blanket, a change of clothes, a flask, some home-made sandwiches from my mum in a bag for life and about £80 in my pocket. It was everything I had left.

The last time I’d lived in London, 15 years earlier, I’d stayed in Balham and I knew I wanted to head back there, to somewhere familiar – so I started walking.

Every now and then I’d stop and sit on a bench for a while – it was so depressing. I didn’t want to face the fact that I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. I was just in a daze.

I stopped by one of the bridges over the Thames and I could see all these cardboard boxes, put together almost like tents. I wanted to go and talk to someone, because I thought these are the people I’ve got to get in with now, but I was too scared.

At one point I walked past a building site, so I called in and asked to speak to the gaffer. I told him I was a pipe layer and asked if he had any work going – but there was nothing doing so I kept on going.

That first night I tried to sleep by Wandsworth roundabout. Looking back it’s almost comical, but at the time it was terrifying. There was a council estate, a playground and some bushes, so I sat there and waited until it got dark. I climbed into the bushes and pulled my blanket over me, but it wasn’t late, it was just dark and there were still loads of people walking past. I was convinced that someone was going to see me and say “What are you doing there you dirty old bastard, you pervert?”

 
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Notre Dame Estate, Clapham, March 2019

So I was in this bush, really tired but totally paranoid, trying not to breathe too loudly, and I just thought “I can’t do this!” So then there I was trying to sneak back out! I can’t remember where I actually slept that night – I think it might have been sitting at a bus stop, not really sleeping at all.

The next night I ended up laying down in the doorway of a surgery on St John’s Hill, and that was the first night I properly slept out. I only had a wool blanket, and I tied the handles of my bag together and held it tight to my body. I was desperate not to lose it.

When I woke in the morning I was beginning to withdraw, but I didn’t know where to score. I got talking to another homeless guy, and he agreed to show me – in return for paying for his drugs. Later, he took me to the basement under the Notre Dame estate in Clapham, and I started sleeping there.

The church on the Common

 
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Holy Trinity Clapham, September 2018

I stayed in that basement for a while and it was an absolute lifesaver through the winter, because it was warm and dry. At first we managed to keep it clean, so no one knew we were down there – but eventually this other guy ended up sleeping there with us and he was a nightmare. He’d leave blood and needles all over the place – it was horrific, and that was when they welded the doors up. Homeless people lost a relatively safe, warm place because of him.

After that I started sleeping over at the church on the Common. We didn’t take drugs there and we packed up each morning, so the caretaker used to bring us coffee, because we treated the place with respect.

There was a lady who used to come almost every morning on her mobility scooter with a pack of Tesco croissants, bananas, a pouch of tobacco and perhaps a bottle of orange juice. It’d be something different every day, but pretty much always some croissants and fruit. She’d tell us not to get out of our sleeping bags on her account and would stop for a chat. People like that restore your faith in humanity.

When you’re on the streets a lot of the time you don’t go to sleep until really late – I mean 3am late. Even then you’re cold, and you’re essentially sleeping with one eye open, never fully relaxed. By 7am you’ve got to get up because they’re going into church – so you’re not really sleeping properly at all. In the day you’re always on the go, often just to keep warm or because you’ve been moved on, so you’re always tired, always hungry. You’re living in a state of constant exhaustion.

I moved around a bit. Sometimes I’d find different places to sleep to get away from people at the church who’d latched on to me. Doorways, backstreets – anywhere, really, just where other people wouldn’t know where I was.

Camping

 At first I only had the blanket, but while I was staying in the basement I started going to Ace of Clubs, this day centre round the corner from the tube. You could get hot lunch and a shower there, do your washing and they’d help you out with things like getting housed.

The staff would give me useful bits and pieces, and over time I built up things like a sleeping bag, a kip mat, proper waterproofs and a poncho. I stole a burner from a camping shop and I bought a cheap rucksack. I looked after it all very carefully and I’ve still got some of it – other bits I’ve given away to people who need it more than me now.

 
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I started sleeping on the Common in the summer, to get away from some of the people I was hanging around with. I lost a lot of my morals on the street, but you have to draw the line somewhere and when you’re surrounded by bad people, as I was at that point, the only way you can keep what remain of your principles is to extract yourself and be your own little island – so that’s what I did.

I ended up setting up a poncho underneath some bushes, just a few metres from the path, but I’d been given a ghillie net off this Ray Mears wannabe I met so you really couldn’t see it. I was careful, mind, and I never used to go in there until very late at night.

I laid my sleeping bag and the mat on this plastic bivi bag to help keep it dry. It was alright there – although sometimes I’d wake up to find bloody foxes pulling at my sleeping bag. Nightmare, man!

At about 2am, when I felt it was safe, I used to set a fire. Anyone who’s been camping knows the comfort that a fire brings – it’s second to none. It’s company, it’s mesmerising and it helps you to focus on what you need to focus on.

 
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Mark revisits a former stash, Clapham Common, February 2018

There was a tree trunk with a hole in it and I always used to stash a can of all-day breakfast in it, and maybe some hotdogs, along with a small amount of cash. Worst case scenario, I knew I could go back there and either make a fire or get my burner out and warm something up.

Hot food is so important. Those £1 breakfasts in a can are not great, but when it’s 2am, wet, freezing cold, there’s steam coming out of your mouth and your coat’s zipped up to your nose, it beats the fanciest sandwich in the world.  

Lee

 
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Lee's bench, Clapham Common, November 2018

I met Lee because he was the only other Welsh guy on the street in Clapham at that time. He wasn’t into drugs, he was a drinker, and he’d been homeless for donkey’s years. He used to sit on this bench on the Common every day, guaranteed.

I was walking across the Common with this other homeless guy one day and he said “Oh, that’s one of yours, that’s Lee!”

So Lee said “Alright buddy?” and I said “Alright mate!” and the way he said it I thought – that’s my accent! Not a Welsh accent, I mean the exact same accent as me, so I stopped and we got chatting.

He asked me why I didn’t have a drink. When I told him I didn’t have any money he asked what I wanted and went and got me one. It was so incredibly refreshing, that attitude, because that’s exactly how you would approach a fellow Welshman. Do you fancy a pint?

He turned out to be like a big uncle to me. Every time he’d see me he’d ask if I had a drink. If he had £3 in his pocket then that meant we’d have a drink each and work it out from there – that was just his mentality.

I used to shoplift and bring him a bottle of wine sometimes. I’d just be cycling past and drop it off. “You not having a drink?” he’d ask, and I’d be like “No mate, I’ve got things to do, places to be!” It was funny, and at a very dark time that warmth, that humour, made everything so much nicer.

 
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If someone was new to rough sleeping, Lee would often sleep out with them for a bit and look after them – he was just a good guy. He didn’t steal, he used to sit down to beg and he’d make money because he was really funny and he looked like Father Christmas.  He was a big guy, and he wouldn’t tolerate bullying – so he was like a port in a storm.

Garry was his best mate. Even though Garry didn’t say much, they had a very close relationship. Lee was with him when he died, and had been at his bedside in the hospice every day before that. He even stopped drinking for a while because Garry had to.

After that he went downhill, though – he got back on the drink and became a bit of a lost soul. I’d go and see him and he wasn’t the same man. He’d sat on this bench, next to this guy, for so long, and I think it just broke him. Not long after, he collapsed and had a massive heart attack on the street.

I went to the hospital, and I was able to call his mum and dad, but he never regained consciousness. I was there when they turned the machine off.

People walk by and look down their noses at homeless people, but just because someone has a can of alcohol in their hand, just because they’re a smackhead, it doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. They might be kinder and more loyal than you could ever imagine. There are some brilliant relationships on the streets, and meeting Lee was something good that came from a lot of unhappiness.

Two dark, one light

 
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Bench behind the Sainsbury's car park, where Mark would sometimes wait to score, November 2018

Heroin is an opioid, a painkiller – the strongest of all painkillers. If you have cancer you sometimes get morphine, and heroin is diamorphine, which is even stronger. So when you take heroin, if you’re cold it makes you warm, if you’re scared it wraps its arms around you, if you’re in pain it all goes away.

Then, at the other end of the scale, there’s cocaine. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken coke, but if you have a decent line, times that by at least 20 and you have crack. As soon as you inject crack you’ll often throw up, it’s that intense. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up, your whole head tingles and it gives you a massive confidence boost.

When you mix them together, and you do it in one go, you’ve got these two conflicting things going on. It’s called a speedball and it must be the most dangerous drug on earth, because one’s a stimulant and the other’s a depressant – so the crack’s making your heart pound while the heroin’s making your lungs relax.

It’s an extreme feeling – I cannot explain the sense of euphoria – and remember, to be in that position you’ve got to have gone down a really bad road, so your life is filled with shit, which makes it all the more potent. When I first started using both, not only was I on the streets, but someone was terrorising me, making my life a living hell.

Back home in Wales people are flat out on the heroin, but they don’t know much about speedballing. In London you rarely buy one without the other – they do deals, two dark, one light, or two light, one dark.

If you see them, they’re in little balls, like ball bearings wrapped in clingfilm. One is £10, two for £15 or three for £20. I used to get two dark, one light – two heroin, one crack, all on the spoon. Every time I injected myself at the very minimum it would be one and one, but most of the time it would be two dark and one light for £20, and I’d do that four, five times a day – as well as drink countless cans.  

A lot of the time when you score, you’re desperate – you’re physically ill by that point. So as soon as you’ve got it, the closest place that’s out of the public eye is game.

 
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Just around the corner, Clapham, August 2017. This once popular spot has since been sealed off

Sitting down

When things got really bad I started shoplifting. I always stole from big supermarkets and sold to small shops, that was how I justified it to myself at the time – but I knew it was wrong. At first it was easy, but there’s only so long you can get away with it. As soon as you get recognised, as soon as you get caught a couple of times, you get caught every time.

Eventually I got arrested and went to court. The magistrate told me that he could see I was in a bad place and that I didn’t have a record – but he said you can’t keep doing this, and I was ordered to pay a fine. I felt so ashamed.

I knew I had to stop, but I was homeless and I really was in a bad way. So what do you do?

 
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Barclays Bank, Clapham High Street, November 2018

I remember the very first place I sat down to beg – it was just down from the Barclays Bank on Clapham High Street, because that felt too intimidating. So I sat there with my hood up, cup between my legs, and all I could think was “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”. I was clucking, feeling really ill, it was just total desperation at that point.

I can’t explain how hard it is, how much courage it takes, to actually sit between two cashpoints and ask for money. The truth is in London you can get by like this, and for a while I did, but it was soul destroying.

Self-righteousness

This is how it goes:

MARK, sat by a cashpoint, two or three coffees already lined up next to him, stirrers and sugars on top, and perhaps a Greggs bag. PASSERBY approaches.

PASSERBY        “Would you like a coffee?”

MARK  “No, I’m ok, thank you.”

PASSERBY        “Are you sure? Is there anything I can get you?”

MARK  “No, not really – to be honest with you I could just do with a couple of quid.”

PASSERBY        “Ah, well, you see I don’t really feel comfortable giving you money, because I don’t want you to spend it on drugs.”

MARK  “Ok, fine, fair enough.”

PASSERBY        “Well, would you like a coffee?”

MARK  “Honestly, no thank you, I’m ok.”

PASSERBY shakes head, disappears, only to return minutes later with a coffee, adding it to the queue. Strides off, head held high – a hero.

I had conversations like this most days I sat out, although usually with some invasive, judgemental questions thrown in for good measure. At that point I think you have every right to tell them to fuck off and leave you alone – but can you imagine the scene?

PASSERBY        “You rude, disrespectful man! I only tried to help you!”

Did you? Did you really? Or did you want to feel self-righteous, and for me to be forever grateful to you for giving me something I didn’t want?

 
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These patronising bastards pretend they want to help, but it’s not for your benefit, it’s for theirs. If you want to give me some money, great. If not, that’s fine, stop for a chat or keep walking – but don’t come over and treat me like a child, don’t insult me, don’t demand to know what I’m going to spend your precious pound on and then call me a liar.

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person and you see someone on the street and want to help them, you should do so with no expectation of recognition. An act of charity shouldn’t be on your terms – show them some respect by listening to them.

Not giving money because you’d be “encouraging” a drug or alcohol habit is so stupid. That ship has sailed, mate – if they’re an addict, they will start shitting themselves and fitting on the street if they don’t get a fix. Until that happens, they can’t hold food down, let alone think about where they’re going to sleep that night.

Do you think they’re going to somehow detox on the street? Or maybe you’re going to invite them into your home so they can do it there?

By giving money you’re not making them into a drug addict or an alcoholic, but showing kindness – actual kindness – might remind them that there’s more to life, that seeking help might be worth it.

Ghosts

 
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Bin where Mark sometimes stored his belongings, Clapham, November 2018

It was a Tuesday night, really late, there was nobody around. I’d been sitting there begging for ages and I’d finally managed to get £1.20 – enough for a can. I went and bought one and then for some reason I came back to the same spot and just sat back down. I can remember thinking I’ll just hope for the best until morning.

I was sat there with my knees up in front of me, arms wrapped around them, cup between my feet, when I became aware of somebody walking by. I was too tired to say anything, let alone look up, but I felt the cup move. Because I was looking through my hands all I could see was his hand. He didn’t say a word – not a single word – and I said thank you before I’d had a chance to look in the cup. He just carried on walking, while I pulled out three £20 notes and a tenner. He didn’t tap me, he didn’t ask me a question – he just put £70 in my cup. I looked up and he was gone.

It’s easy to dwell on negatives, but you do encounter some seriously good people. I’ll always remember him, the ghost man – things like that give you hope.  

The bin shed

For a while I lived in a bin shed on an estate round the back of Sainsbury’s. It was a very dark time for me, and yet I encountered some incredible kindness there, and I managed to turn that place into a sort of home.

It backed onto somebody’s flat on the estate – it was literally outside his kitchen window. One day, when I’d not been there long, the guy came out to talk to me. I thought he was going to ask me to leave, so I started to apologise, but he cut me off. He said “I’ve got no problem with you – we’ve all got to live somewhere – all I ask is that I don’t want to see drugs or needles or anything like that. If you respect me, I’ll respect you.” Then he offered me a cup of coffee and asked when the last time I washed was. Before I knew it he came back out with a coffee in one hand and a bucket full of warm, soapy water in the other.

He said “If you’re ever in trouble, just bang on that window, even if you just want a cup of coffee or a wash.” We shook hands, and that was it. I never bothered him, but every now and then he’d open the window, ask how I was doing and offer me a hot drink. This was a guy living on a council estate – he wasn’t rich. He never imposed himself on me, never laid down the law, other than politely asking me not to leave needles lying around.

 
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The bin shed, now sealed shut, November 2018

People got to know me there because I did treat the place respectfully. They used to leave me things, with notes on – like “Merry Christmas, hope you can use this”. They left me quilts, a massive beige offcut of carpet that I actually managed to fit perfectly into the space, a four post wooden bed, two mattresses, a bedside cabinet, a chest of drawers, a laundry basket and even a beanbag. It was my little pad. I wish I had a picture!

I couldn’t lock the door behind me and I knew that other addicts were going in there when I was out, so I had a drawer full of paraphernalia, syringes and sharps bins all in packs. That way there was no excuse for anyone leaving anything out, or for using dirty needles. I used to take the bins back to Lorraine Hewitt House when they filled up.

The bin shed became a bit famous – even the police knew about it, and they used to come and check on me. I remember one particular officer, a big rugby player type and an absolute gent, would come and say hello. He knew I wasn’t dealing, he knew I wasn’t a threat to anybody, and he treated me like a human being. He never searched me or invaded my privacy, he just genuinely cared.  

Ace

 
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Ace of Clubs, Clapham, March 2019

I can even remember the bloody top I had on the first time I went – a blue Adidas Italian football track jacket. I think it was Nicola who came out and asked me if I was alright. She asked if I wanted a coffee – I said I didn’t have any money, but she said that’s alright, I’ll get you one. Did I want something to eat? Was I sleeping rough? Nothing intrusive, just concern.

It was scary at first, going in there, and I didn’t trust anyone at that point, I didn’t want people to know who I was or where I was sleeping. But over time I started to get to know them, and they were always kind to me.

It became a routine – every day I’d go there in the morning and take everything out to air and dry. I realised it was a safe place and that I could trust the staff. Ace gave me an address so I could get my benefits back and renew my CPCS card, so I could start working on building sites again. I registered with a GP through them, and I’d go and see Amy, the nurse – she was the one who told me that I had hepatitis C, but that it could be cured.

 
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Mark's Hepatitis C medication, March 2018. He has since been given the all clear

It wasn’t just about practical stuff, though, it was about being able to have a normal conversation with normal people about normal things. I could talk about how I was feeling without having to have my guard up for once, and I can’t describe how much of a relief that was. They kept me positive and stopped me from giving up at a time when my mental health was all over the place.

They were a gateway, really. They opened up lots of other services for me, and they helped to get me housed. Without them I think I’d still be on the street. Actually, if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’d probably be dead. I mean, if there isn’t somewhere for you to dry your sopping wet sleeping bag in the depths of winter then you’re going to get pneumonia, aren’t you? 

Proper food

 
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Mark at home, November 2018

I learnt to cook when I was living in caravans, working on the roads laying pipes. This was 17, 18 years ago – I was a young man earning £800 a week. It was a fortune! I’d struggled with drugs before that, but I was doing ok then, and I enjoyed my job. I’d seen so many men go away to work to provide for their family, but the second they finished they’d be in the pub until closing, then sick as dogs at work the next day. I thought sod that.

The caravans were rough as hell, mice all over the place, but I thought if I’m going to live this life I’m going to have a decent caravan. So I bought a nice one, and I started eating out. Back then I knew nothing about food – on the very rare occasions I’d gone out, I’d have a steak well done. A mushroom would be exotic!

So I started trying different things. My attitude was, if I don’t like it, so what? Everything I ordered that I liked, I’d write it down.

 
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Picnic on Clapham Common, May 2018

I had a proper kitchen in my caravan and I started buying nice food and wine. Mostly I’d eat by myself, or occasionally with someone I trusted not to take the piss. They all thought I was mad! At least once a week I’d have a big cook up and try to replicate something I’d eaten out. But I always bought too much food, so I ended up with spare ingredients and that’s when I started to get a bit more creative – when I really fell in love with it.

My downfall was whenever I went home and tried to have a normal life. I was surrounded by the same things that got me in trouble when I was younger.

Nowadays cooking is my passion, and having access to a good kitchen is my greatest luxury. I love to make something nice, I love the whole process. I’d never do it for a living, that would spoil it – it’s a little bit of peace, just for me.  

Recovery

 
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Methadone, 75ml, March 2018

Methadone is a synthetic opiate substitute. It has no euphoric properties but it stops the feeling of withdrawal, and at the right dose it stops the cravings. You can function on methadone, you feel ok and because it’s free it takes you away from crime.

People on the street who wanted me to stay there tried to warn me off it, saying you just end up with two habits. That’s a load of bollocks.

It’s how you transition from using on the streets, from street life generally and from raising funds illegally. It enables you to start thinking about getting your life back – paying bills, getting yourself clean and working again.

Initially you do take both heroin and methadone, but over time they increase your dose of methadone and you take less heroin. They do it very slowly until you get to the point where you’re not craving any more. I can’t remember how long it took me, but it was over many months.

You have to go to the chemist every day – if you drop your script then you have to go back to the beginning. It’s your responsibility, and taking that responsibility is an important part of the process.

 
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Mark with his drug and alcohol counsellor at Lorraine Hewitt House, Brixton, May 2018

Once you’re off the heroin and you feel confident that you’re ready, you start reducing the amount of methadone – again, very slowly. I was on 90ml a day at one point, which is really high, and I went down in 5ml doses. I haven’t used drugs since October 2017, when I got the all-clear from my hepatitis C treatment, and I started reducing my methadone about six months later.

Now I’m on a 20ml dose and I’m going to stick with that while I do my alcohol detox – one step at a time. But I can finally see an end to it, I really do see a light at the end of the tunnel.  

Today

 
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When I look back it no longer feels like my life, and it feels longer ago than it was. Reading this it probably sounds like I remember a lot, but there’s so much that’s a blur, so much that I’ve forgotten. Sometimes you’ll catch me in a moment where I’m reliving it, and that’s hard – it’s always the most painful stuff that comes back to you.

So many things are better now, but the lifestyle I lived takes a toll that can’t be reversed. My mental health has improved but I still suffer from anxiety and depression, and my physical health is poor. My lungs are not in great shape – I have COPD and emphysema, which is a progressive illness, so that’s only going to get worse. From injecting myself my body is permanently scarred. I have water retention in my legs and my veins are pretty much gone – if I need blood taken it’s a hell of a job.

The most important thing to me now is the relationship I’m in – in fact everything good in my life now comes down to the people around me. Everyone in my little world wants the best for me, and that is a very, very different situation to the one I was in. I’m safe, there’s food in the cupboard, a roof over my head, I have a pound in my pocket and it’s not going on drugs. I value my life now and the people in it – and I know how lucky I am.

When I think about the future, I just want to enjoy a very simple life in the time I have left, with the people who I care about. I think about living in a caravan again and maybe setting off on an adventure. I want to see things, go to new places and try different foods.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but what I see now, very clearly, is that they’re not a reason to give up, that there is always hope – and that it’s never too late to ask for help.

 
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