Keith Richards talks to her friends
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
It was a pleasant sunny morning last week as I strolled leisurely down Devonshire Road for my usual Cappuccino with the regulars at The Beehive café. Half-way down there was a knot of stragglers blocking the pavement and I realised that opposite, in an empty shop doorway, behind a parked police car, was what was clearly a body covered loosely by a grey sheet of some description.
A few minutes later sitting outside with Beehive’s Antonio he explained when he had come to open up there had been two women sitting slumped upright in the doorway and he had taken no notice. As we all know this has become a pretty routine sight in and around Chiswick high Road so Devonshire Road residents and workers just walked past on their daily routines until an hour or so later another shopkeeper thought something was strange and called the police.
One of the women, still upright, had passed away and the other, probably still under the effects of the heroin that they were apparently using that night, had not even been aware. Once the police arrived, she ran away.
We sat as time passed and watched shoppers step into the street to avoid the tape cordoning off the space until eventually a private ambulance pulled up. Two black trousered, white shirted men nonchalantly chatted to the police who held up the sheet as a kind of screen as the woman’s body was put into the vehicle. It all seemed so casual, like bin men collecting the rubbish.
Indeed, the police actually took the detritus, including what looked like a small mattress, from the shop front and round to the bins at the back. Within a few minutes Devonshire Road was back to its normal genteel existence with no sign that a small human tragedy had just taken place.
A couple of days later I saw one of the regular homeless people who frequent the space outside the small Sainsbury’s. I regularly stop and chat to a couple of them, so I took the opportunity to ask N* if she knew the girl who had died. N explained they were all part of a loose group and she knew her well.
The woman’s name was Rachel. In fact, she had been with the two women the previous evening but when they and another man, K, gave her a roll-up she realised it had heroin in it. N says she has been clean for some months which seemed to annoy the others. Upset by this she left them.
According to her, Rachel had been suffering from chest problems so smoking the heroin was clearly one of the worst things she could do. N explained that Rachel came from the Feltham area and had three children.
Today, at the spot where she passed away are several bunches of flowers and a card showing Rachel was a person with a name and a life, such as it was.
K, I know because he is also a Sainsbury’s regular. Early this year he had made a small fire out of sandwich wrappers and waste, he said, to keep warm, but a nearby café called the police and he was arrested and charged with arson. He was, according to him, given four months detention and he served two months before being let out again with no rehabilitation, back on to the street.
Speaking to him today he confirmed Rachel was a crack and heroin user. He looked at me poignantly as asked “You know we all are, right?” I nodded. “It’s a bad situation. The stuff they sell us is rubbish, its killing us.” He also asked if his face looked swollen as he claimed to have been punched the previous evening by a random stranger who had just come out of the Roebuck pub. It did.
I had asked N how her efforts to stay clean were going. She has been trying to be accepted on one of St Mungo’s schemes but one of the problems she was having was that she had been staying in hostels recently and to qualify she had to be on the street itself for them to check on her.
This meant she had gone back to sleeping rough which exposed her to her old mates and the temptations she is trying to avoid. It is of course quite possible that she makes these stories up to elicit a little extra cash.
Chiswick is not an uncaring place. It is probably one of the reasons why we do have so many homeless on our generally middle-class streets. While I was chatting to N in the early evening several people came out of Sainsbury’s and gave her sandwiches and a drink. She usually collects enough food to eat, albeit unhealthily, and for the hostel which I am told is £17.50 a night.
She does occasionally have a black-eye or some sign of violence but does not say from who but I know one or two of her associates can get aggressive. Generally, though most of those regular homeless I see are passive and require the good will of locals. I am told that the shop lifting specialists and gangs that have been the subject of recent reports here in the Calendar and in the national press are not ‘our’ homeless though I am sure they do petty pilfer food and other items to pay for their habits.
I wonder who it is that deals the bad drugs to the desperate, cut with cheap filler than can make them all the more dangerous. Recently, in response to the press coverage about shoplifters the Metropolitan Police have been sending in more occasional patrols. However, several local residents tell me everyone knows who the dealers are and where they stash their stuff. If they know, why don’t the police?
This is not a news item. I am not a journalist and have not been able verify some of the facts. However, this is a piece from a Chiswick resident who wants to ask how we have come to this. How a society that, despite economic hard times, is still an affluent one, can treat people this way?
How can someone like K just be arrested and sent back on to the streets with no rehabilitation? How can N who is trying to get ‘clean’, struggle to find help to do that and get off the street? How can a mother of three die on one of our wealthiest roads and lie unnoticed for several hours?
Hounslow Council does not have the funding, Westminster government washes its hands, charities are overstretched and inundated and it seems it is not a priority for the police. Where is the societal will to sort out this stain on our humanity, or have we just grown to accept it?
What can we as individuals do? I believe at least we should remember these homeless people are part of the same society as us. They have names and histories. They are simply people who for various reasons fall off the main thoroughfare. Yes, many seek solace in drugs and drink that in turn can cause disruptive behaviour that isolates them further.
There are ways to help those organisations that do try to help, particularly financially. But I am sad to remember that N once said to me, ‘At least you don’t treat me like a piece of shit, like most people’. Is that the best we can do?
* As I did not ask permission, I am not giving out the names.
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