In the spring London sunlight, a tattered, filthy, homeless woman walks along the crowded Strand, trailing a checked sleeping bag behind her. Sitting by the window of a coffee bar, Linda Stout-Turner looks out and recognizes the sleeping bag.
“There you are, there goes my sleeping bag. That was mine, you can’t hang on to anything and you certainly can’t go demanding it back. It makes me furious,” she said.
With her mobile phone, clean, pressed top and trousers, and carefully applied make-up, Stout-Turner, a sales executive and mother-of-two, merges into the noisy, busy cafe like any other customer — but she hasn’t got the money to buy a cup of water.
It’s only when the workers and shoppers have gone home and the pavements empty and darken, that the 52-year-old stands out, as much a homeless woman as the lady dragging the sleeping bag.
She had a house, a rented four-bedroom home in Epping, east London, where she parked her sleek car after a day spent meeting her £3 million (US$4.4 million) sales targets. Now she beds down in a night shelter off nearby Trafalgar Square, on a narrow army cot in a large room of strangers that smells of unwashed bodies, dirty clothes, urine and stale alcohol. She is woken at 6:30am, folds away the bed and has an hour to wash in the hostel showers and dress before the hostel closes and she is out on the street again until 10pm.
“I keep myself busy. I have been out for long walks and I go to the library and use the computer to upload and redo my CV. I do the rounds of the recruitment agencies, trying to get myself known. I have set myself a target of applying for three jobs a day,” she said.
Stout-Turner has had no home to go to for nearly a month, part of a growing phenomenon changing the picture of Britain’s homeless. Charities and homeless agencies are reporting a huge rise in the numbers of once-successful high-earners approaching them as the economic recession begins to strip away jobs, homes and relationships.
Unlike the majority of people traditionally at risk of ending up on the streets, Stout-Turner is not running away from anyone, she has no mental illness or substance abuse problems. But when it all went wrong it happened so fast that she still has trouble taking it in. It began before Christmas, when her rented house had to be sold quickly by her landlord and at the same time she was made redundant.
“I was out of a home, so I decided I’d move to London and do a business course while taking agency work. I was absolutely confident that I would have no problem getting work,” she said.
Several flats she was looking to rent fell through, the course was delayed, the agency work dried up and finally, while staying in a hotel, she was robbed.
“I had nowhere to go and the police directed me to the hostel. It all happened so fast: 25 years of work ripped away with nothing to show for it. They say you are two pay packets away from the streets. Well, it’s true,” she said.
Stout-Turner is clinging to the vestiges of her former, solvent, self. But the slightly unkempt hair and tired eyes show the strain.
“I would never have thought someone like me could have reached this position. The streets are no place for a woman, it’s so dangerous out there. Violence is a worry at the hostel, too, but you can’t dwell on it. There’s a lot of paranoia from the people there. They thought I was an undercover cop at first; now they call me Lady Linda. I haven’t slept at all the past couple of nights as it’s a bit rowdy at times, people have nightmares or screaming fits. There was a stabbing a few night ago. I have got to the point of exhaustion. I think that’s why a lot of them drink as much as they do, just to knock themselves out. My sleeping bag and gloves being stolen made me furious. One woman had her socks and shoes stolen off her feet while she slept,” she said.