"You cannot imagine the vicissitudes of being made sudden and violently homeless" she said, looking straight at (or through?) me with an incongruously broad smile.
I had an unusual and quite profound experience last week. I spent two hours chatting to a middle aged homeless woman.
It happened like this. After an early business meeting, I and the chap I met were walking to the station. At the top of a short slope a middle aged woman stood alone with two large suite cases and a couple of plastic bags. There was nothing else unusual about her except that she looked slightly bemused. I thought perhaps she needed help getting her bags down the slope, although I wasn't sure if she had just climbed up the slope, so I paused as we passed and said "hi, where are you going?"
She looked surprised that I had spoken to her and said nothing. Slightly concerned I asked "are you okay?" and she broke into a huge smile and said "I'm sorry I didn't smile, but I am in crisis".
That wasn't the response I was expecting and I didn't know what to do with it. My companion and I looked at each other and I said something facetious like "oh well, keep smiling!" and we hurried away.
But I felt uneasy.
When I got to my nearby office, I narrated the odd experience to my colleagues. I was confused and unsettled. The woman didn't look homeless. She was wearing a nice, warm looking coat. Her suitcases looks fairly new. I wondered if she had literally just been ejected from her home or something. I couldn't settle down, so I decided to go and look for her.
Off I went. I walked all over the town for about 20 minutes but there was no sign of her. I had almost given up and was kicking myself for walking away from her the first time when I noticed her sitting in the corner of a cafe nursing a cup of tea!
So, I walked straight in, sat down opposite her, smiled and said "I'm getting myself a cup of tea, would you like one?" She looked up and said "hot porridge". "No tea?" I asked. She looked slightly concerned and repeated "hot porridge". I realised she thought I was asking her to make a choice between tea or hot porridge, so I went and got both and say back down.
That's when she looked straight at me and said "You cannot imagine the vicissitudes of being made suddenly and violently homeless".
Over the next two hours I sat silently sipping my tea and listening as she ate her porridge, drank her tea and, gradually at first and then with more enthusiasm, told me the story of her life. Her life now and her life over the past fifty years.
She told me she was going to our local library because it is warm and if you sit with the books quietly and you don't smell or disturb anyone they leave you alone and you can doze off. She said she tries to stay awake at night because it's dangerous on the streets as a woman, so she sleeps in the day if she can find somewhere warm. But right now the weather is cold. "Your bones turn to ice" she said and that's why she wanted the hot porridge. She said you learn about all the libraries. What time they open, how friendly they are. I didn't realise our libraries performed this vital function!
She said "I keep myself clean. I respect myself". She goes to shopping centres really early and cleans herself in the loos. She sometimes goes to the airport, blends in with her suitcases and sleeps there as if she is waiting for a flight. She talked about being harassed on the tube train by transport police. She knows which stations have public toilets and which have nasty guards.
Gradually she went back in time. How happy and cheeky she was as a little girl. How her family navigated a civil war. he was "a gifted mathematician" at school, she told me. How she came to Britain thirty years ago, with her father promising to send money for her studies but then it never appeared. She came to the UK to study accounting. Plunged straight into crisis as a young woman almost as soon as she came off the plane, with little money and no relatives. She got herself a restaurant job and worked part time whilst studying part time up in Newcastle. It took her many years but eventually she qualified as an ACCA accountant!
But life didn't get easier. Then she's an immigrant in her early thirties with years of cafe work experience and an accounting qualification but no-one would give her an accounting job. She managed to get into teaching at higher education colleges and worked hard, sending money home to a large family that kept wanting more and more. So much pressure.
Then in 2009 she got "ill". She told me both mentally and physically. It was too much. "Look at me speaking to you here normally. Back then I could not speak. I was not able to say a word for four years. The words were inside but they wouldn't come out"
At some point she improved enough such that the powers that be decided she could work and therefore cut off her rent. She used whatever money she had to buy food and pay heating bills but the bailiffs eventually came round and "violently through me out onto the streets."
Now she roams the streets of London, with her life in two big suitcases, keeping clean, keeping warm, smiling at strangers, dodging trouble, staying awake, being invisible.
I had to return to work, I told her, two hours later. "Thank you for talking to me" she said, and she meant it. She really meant it. She didn't ask me for anything. She didn't need me to point her towards a shelter or anything. She knew what to do and where to go. She just really appreciated someone listening to her life and I was privileged to listen.
Of course, I popped across the road to the cash point, came back and pressed a little something into her hand. But that's not what our meeting was about. I didn't change her life. But, just by listening to her story she felt "seen". Amongst all the awful days that she has to navigate, today would count as a good day.
Before I left she looked at me and asked quizzically, as if it had just occurred to her "Did you come back and look for me?" . Yes, I confirmed.
"Thank you so much" she said, "thank you."