She’s hard to miss. Short haired, angular, sitting in a scruffy wheelchair not a stone’s throw from Victoria Station in London. She often shouts at commuters as they flow by, like a stream disregarding a bleating sheep as it gushes down a slope.
On her lap is a piece of cardboard, sometimes used as a sign describing her desperate state monosyllabically; at other times it is a display table, used for bits of tat, urban driftwood, she waves at the ignoring stream.
The other day a whistle echoed down Victoria Street. It was the day after the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I half wondered if it was the sound of police outriders heralding the return of the happy couple to the capital. But it was this lady, offering a blow of her whistle to anyone who gave her a donation. If the donor preferred, they could have a kiss from a grubby soft toy she clutched in her other hand.
The day after, she was slumped – asleep or passed out – a filthy, crumpled cardboard cup clasped in her right hand. Around the wheels beneath her, there had gathered piles of rubbish, plastic drink bottles, screwed up pieces of paper.
How had this person ended up here? Surely a failure of multiple agencies. With no knowledge of her circumstances I would venture she suffered from mental health issues but I clearly can’t be sure. She is clearly vulnerable and obviously lacking any useful level of support. But, she isn’t alone.
In the few hundred yards of Victoria Street I walk almost daily, I count those sitting on the street begging, or squatting on rolled sleeping bags. Rarely does the total sink beneath a dozen. Behind a café, for weeks, a tent was pitched. The legs of its inhabitant were often visible. The walls of Buckingham Palace garden were some 500 yards away.
Outside Pret A Manger, another woman with a cardboard sign, scratched with pleading, often sits. Painfully thin, hollowed out, she sometimes just sits there weeping. Closer to Victoria station, the numbers dwindle. A few regulars sit in familiar places, clutching their signs, draped in a sleeping bag, but they are often moved on by police or security guards who grandly traipse around the station and its environs.
Two regular, smiley, helpful, sellers of The Big Issue stand resolutely on their pitch, helping tourists with directions and chatting with their regulars.
These are stories from just a few hundred yards of one, admittedly busy, street in central London. It horrifies me every day.