About

It’s full of 30 individual chronicles of some really diverse people who all – for one reason or another – ended up living on the streets of London.

I spent a couple of months listening and talking to the city’s homeless and I recorded our conversations so that they could tell their stories in their own words.

How they got there and how they survive the horrors of street-life are part of all their stories but so is who they were before their nightmare began.

Close-up of young girl in biker jacket
Melissa on Garrick St
Darren reading, sitting on pavement
Darren spent most of his time reading
Young man with eyes shut and head down, praying
Daniel, in distress

I learned about what they dream of for the future, what they’re afraid of and what they actually feel – you know – inside.

They struggle with illness (physical and mental) malnutrition, fear and desperate loneliness but somehow, in spite of all this, they always managed to welcome me into their lives.

You can see some of the photographs I took for the book on the site.

Black and white photo of homeless woman talking in public toilet
Kerry chatting to me after she’d had her daily wash

I crowdfunded the First Edition with Unbound Publishers and copies of this went to the 353 totally amazing people who dug deep to contribute the money to get it made. I even made a little video … why not take a quick look? Once this was done, the massive publishing house, Penguin (now convinced there was a market for FOUR FEET UNDER) agreed to print further editions, market the book, get it into bookshops and … put in Penguin Books Catalogue … for me, this little detail really meant a lot – as a child I had grown up surrounded by books all bearing the sign of that little orange penguin.

An extract from the book

In my previous job as an investigative journalist I often dealt with people whose life experiences were far removed from most people’s. These lives were generally secret or hidden away from the rest of us, involving things like domestic violence, miscarriages of justice, deaths in prison and so on.

What struck me about the homeless was that their lives are indeed secret but they are not hidden: quite the reverse – they are there, in ever growing numbers, for everyone to see. They are in every city in every country.

The people I met all spoke very openly to me – people like Benji (a chef-cum-builder), Edward (a marine biologist), Jade (a child prostitute), Kenny and Jane (an elderly couple), Brad and Patrick (businessmen), Jasmine (a transexual) and Scott (a coach driver).

Elderly homeless couple on street in bedding
Kenny and Jane – inseparable

Between us, the homeless and I tried to make sense of their lives – lives lived four feet below the rest of us on the pavement – where they laugh, think, worry and sometimes die, and keep only what they can carry. Living alone, they’re always on the move, rootless – and wherever they are, they’re rarely welcome. Through tragedy, misfortune and occasionally bad decisions, they’ve ended up with no home to call their own.

I started out with just one assumption – that virtually no one would actively choose to be displaced, dispossessed and destitute. But if they hadn’t chosen it, how did they end up living in a shop doorway at the bottom of my road? And if they had chosen it, what was so horrific about their life before, that it made this the better option?

I asked countless questions: What was their childhood like? How do they manage to stay alive? What do they think about when they fall asleep at night? Where are their families? Where are they when I can’t see them? What do they do all day?

It’s a weird dynamic when you know absolutely nothing about a person and yet within two hours they’ve told you that they’ve been raped, that they’re scared of spiders and they miss their mum. To hear their terrible jokes, feel the hurt and anger in their voices as they talk about their dreams and dreads is deeply intimate.

And so it was that over time they became my heroes. Accidental heroes, but heroes all the same. Not because they are homeless but because they are brave. Bravery isn’t doing something that doesn’t frighten you – it is doing something even though it does. There is no courage without fear, and the people I met had both. The book turned out to be both a celebration and a lamentation – for all those who do not have an address, who are hidden in plain sight on the streets of London.

 

 

 

 

About Tamsen Courtenay

I write. I take photographs. I worry and I laugh - both of them rather a lot. Inner stories, secret stories, are what fascinate me. My book, FOUR FEET UNDER, chronicling the lives of 30 homeless people in London, is now published, and it's had really terrific reviews. It was supposed to help change how people think about the huddled, damaged souls living on the streets and it seems to be doing its job. So, I am content.

Let me know if you want to say something ...

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