Rough On The Street



I’ve written about street problems and rough sleeping a few times, most notably in ‘Disturbia’, in ‘Plastic’ and now in the next Bryant & May novel. The statistics are alarming and show just how close people in debt are to rough sleeping. A lost job, a missed payment and you can be out. Once you’re on the streets it can take just two weeks to bring on mental health problems, and of course it puts you in danger.

The massive rise in rough sleeping is noticeable around the world. Friends visiting LA recently noted entire camps of rough sleepers near Sunset Boulevard, and while London has comparatively few there has been a massive rise around Marble Arch.

Near my flat in Barcelona the warm nights and high unemployment rate mean many more are on the streets, but the laws seem more compassionate and allow sleeping in many designated areas during hours of darkness. One man near me has been there for three years. He’s smartly turned out, wears a tie and has an incredibly neat cardboard home which he packs up every day. At night he reads in bed by the light of a battery-powered bedside table lamp, and he has a girlfriend who comes and sits with him, as well as friends who drop by.

The rise of ‘homeless spikes’ and ‘poor doors’ outside new apartment buildings sums up our last mayor’s attitude to rough sleepers and social housing. One of the saddest things to happen during the Boris Johnson years was seeing the change in the way people heartlessly treated rough sleepers. The new mayor Sadiq Khan notes that homelessness was tackled perfectly well with resources before and is determined to do it again, which is good news.


Londoners are an accommodating lot and can be again. I live in an old warehouse next to a gated community which found itself with a young rough sleeper. The panicked response of residents instantly split them into groups that were equally in favour of bringing cups of tea and flamethrowers. Eventually an agency was called. One lady said to me; ‘I don’t personally mind him, but it will affect property prices.’ She wasn’t actually seeking to sell her flat.

One of the problems is that many people would like to help with urban problems but simply don’t know how and can’t be bothered to find out. So sofas are dumped on the street, trash piles up and everyone waits for someone else to deal with it. One neighbour said to my partner (who picks up all of the litter in our street veery day) ‘You don’t have to do that. We pay people to do it.’

People want to do the right thing, and this can be funny to watch. We don’t have many litter bins in King’s Cross, ostensibly because of the terrorism threat (so put in clear ones!) but office workers buy endless coffee and soft drinks on the way to work. They look around for a bin, find none, don’t want to drop them in the street so neatly stand them on a wall. For us to clear up.

Nobody expects a city with the size and freedoms of London to look neat (if we did we’d ban those pavement signs that get set out down every main thoroughfare) but we could help a lot more. One of the biggest changes in London is the staggering number of traditional businesses that have turned to takeouts, and now even once pleasant restaurants have taken to employing young girls who pester passers-by for business. It will be interesting to see how the streets are tackled in our new regime.

14 comments on “Rough On The Street”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    My partner and I live part time in Kings Cross, at the back of Camden Town Hall in an Edwardian block of flats. There was a time when there where quite a few people living on the steps. Sod property prices dropping, we were the lucky ones to have a home.
    People should show more compasion.

    Btw, I can’t understand this obsession for walking around the streets carrying overpriced cartons of coffee. And if you want to see litter, go to Sheffield. Appalling.

  2. Matt says:

    I would often see four or five regular street people on route to work. They used the loading bay of a shop to sleep in at night. The shop was redeveloped and the men then had nowhere. A few weeks later I found them once again in the bus shelter along the road. None of them were happy about being in such a vulnerable position but still welcomed me and my delivery of tea and sandwiches. It was all I could offer them but they were grateful. None ever asked me for anything, It just felt right for me to help in some way.

    I am also one of this slightly odd people that collects the rubbish thrown into our street, and I too have been told “we pay people to do that” by a neighbour.

  3. Brooke says:

    Please do not come to Philadelphia or New York– homeless on the street has always been a problem in these cities but it is way out of control now. The increasing number of young people and older women is very worrying. Charities abound ( I’ve done many stints serving meals, bundling clothing, collecting money!) and we never seem to make a dent.

    As another collector of other people’s discarded Starbuck mocha latte paper trash thrown on our river esplanade, I am plotting my revenge.

  4. Julie says:

    It was bad in London seven years ago when I moved out, it looks a lot worse now. I hope Mr khan puts some real effort and cash into helping the people who most need it. Not much litter here in rural Ireland but what there is I pick up.

  5. Roger says:

    I do my litter-collection along the bank of the Thames when I’m not planting trees. There used to be a homeless man who slept in a tent along the river between Kew and Richmond but he kept getting ASBO (?) orders telling him to move.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Years ago there was a man who slept under the shrubbery outside a Vancouver theatre. Coming down the stairs after a performance my eyes met his and I found myself non-verbally apologizing for intruding on his bedroom. Underbridge Garden next to the Burrard Bridge has a resident homeless man who shaves next door at the public pool, reads their newspapers, and has a hidden bedroom up near a chain link fence. He comes down to help the other volunteers to plant, prune, and weed. Litter is everyone’s problem and the principal is the same as in provincial parks: if you can carry it in full you can carry it out empty. I can understand the fear about garbage cans (waste bins) but Chris is correct – make them transparent.

  7. Rachel Green says:

    I’m a rubbish picker-upper too. Also dog poo. It appalls me how many people don’t pick up after their dog.

  8. Jan says:

    Chris the idea of transparent rubbish bags is a good one but we are not on the look out for a round black object with a burning fuse you know. A small bomb can be concealed within a brown paper bag, empty box of chocolates or take,away container. A rubbish receptacle (!) only makes things more difficult because it enables multiple devices to be placed in one,single,container. I know the lack of bins is n’t the best but it’s a balance really particularly in busy public places, train stations etc.

  9. Roger says:

    ” It appalls me how many people don’t pick up after their dog.”
    What astonishes and appalls me is how many people carefully pick up after their dog, put the shit in a plastic bag, tie a knot in the bag and then throw it into the nearest vegetation thick enough to hide it.

  10. Steve says:

    Everything’s impressionistic but my feeling is that London got cleaner and Frankfurt got dirtier over the last, say, 10years. London used to be swimming in rubbish, then I went to Germany and it was clean, I dont see this contrast any more; if anything it’s the other way round. I see people injecting themselves in public in Frankfurt. One thing that is worse in London is the rubbish in late night buses.
    Yes the lack of bins in London can be very difficult; but it’s ever since the ira times and there was / is good reason for it. The transparent bins have to be under video I believe?

  11. Davem says:

    Just finished reading Lifeless by Mark Billingham. Whilst it is obviously fictional, it provides a fascinating insight of those who make up the homeless on the streets of London.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    The problem of homelessness is growing worse in Manchester, we’ve had some demo’s about it, hopefully the council are taking in heed but central funding being cut is terrible, after all we need to keep the bankers afloat. I guess the threat they made to go to France helped with the Brexit vote. With all the metro being expanded Manchester looks more like a building site then ever.


  13. Ellen Boyd says:

    Dear Mr. Fowler:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed all of your quirky books! I recently came across the names of Bryant and May in Kate Summerscale’s 20l6 book I’m reading called The Wicked Boy–the mystery of a Victorian child murderer called Robert Coombes and his brother Nathaniel. Penguin Books, 20l6. It seems Bryant and May is the name of a company that made matches in l895 in the Royal Albert Dock stretch of the Thames–emitting sour and urinous scents along with other equally odiferous manufacturers consigned to this particular area because of the stench.

    Could it be that you came up with Arthur Bryant’s and John May’s last names because you knew of this real life company that really existed in the London of l895? That’s another reason I love these books. You interject real history and places into them.

    I also read Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspitions of Mr. Whicher. This was about one of Scotland Yard’s earliest detectives in a true l860 murder case.

    I would really like to know! Thank you.


  14. admin says:

    Dear Ellen –

    Welcome to our little online get-togethers.
    When I was a child the Bryant & May matchboxes were still everywhere. In fact you saw them around until not very long ago. I suspect I have on in a drawer upstairs. I named my characters after them because they were easy to remember, and once ubiquitous. The Christmas collection, ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’ is a play on words that used to be printed across the matchboxes, which read; ‘Bryant & May – England’s Glory.’

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