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Every rough sleeper in London has a story. This is Stephen’s

The panhandlers on the Tube are usually polite and some rehearse their stories for whoever will listen

He got on the Tube at Archway in north London as we clacked towards the city. Immediately I recognised his accent – Derry – and glanced up. Just as quickly, I looked back down.

“So sorry to bother you, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a soft, melodic lilt. His voice was meek, his cadence deliberate. It sounded like a rehearsed spiel.

The man was dishevelled and his clothes were dirty. He was travelling somewhere but, clearly, going nowhere. He was just filling his day making tired pleas to silent, uninterested strangers on a train.

“As you can see, I’m a little down on my luck. I have magazines to sell, guys, and it would be fantastic if you would buy one. I need money for somewhere to stay. Anything would be appreciated, guys.”


Panhandling on the Underground is common, but hardly the blight some Londoners would have you believe. I take five or six Tubes across the city most days and see a panhandler perhaps three times each week. They are excessively polite. It is a “sales” technique but also means they don’t attract attention. They quickly move off down the carriage if nobody responds.

“Anyone, guys? Okay, thank you so much, have a great day,” he said, shuffling on. “I’m actually an armed forces veteran ...”

My head jolted up again. There weren’t too many Derry men in the British army. He slid into a seat, exhausted. Then he got off our carriage at the next stop, Tufnell Park, and on to the next carriage. I watched him through the glass do it all again. Stop to stop, carriage to carriage, for nothing.

The train sped through the closed Kentish Town station. At Camden, I stepped off and jogged two carriages down and made it through the beeping doors as they slammed shut. Would he get off at the next stop and talk to me on the platform, I asked, explaining who I was. Of course, sir.

We both knew I’d probably give him cash, even though journalists should never give money to the people to whom they speak. It incentivises exaggeration and is ethically dubious. But this man had nothing and I didn’t want to waste his time for yet more nothing. We got off at Euston.

Let’s call him Stephen, although that wasn’t the name he gave me. Stephen was lucid, articulate and highly intelligent. He said his age. It was more than a decade older than mine but I wasn’t sure if I believed him. Rough sleepers tend to look older than they are, not younger.

Stephen said he was Catholic. He said he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he had watched his two brothers get murdered by the IRA in Derry for being “touts” when he was aged seven.

Later that night, I would check the details he gave me against the chronologised records of every killing in the Troubles, on Ulster University’s excellent Conflict Archive on the Internet service. I found no match. I searched all records over a 15-year timespan, overlapping the years he said, in case he had his years wrong. I wasn’t able to reconcile it with the story he told.

Stephen said he was repeatedly raped by a local priest for four years until he was 12. The community called him a liar, he said. He ran away to London when he was 13 and sold sex to men on the streets for “quick money”.

He joined the military at 16 and returned to the North and served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for 12 years, he said. He had stability, a wife and seven children. Then after he left the military he said his wife died in a car crash. He had a mental breakdown, “crumbled” and the kids were raised by their grandparents. He returned to London’s streets.

He said he took heroin every day. I asked what he would do with whatever money he scraped together today. Stephen looked me in the eye and said he would go straight out and score drugs.

London is lonely, he said. He wanted to go back to Ireland but it was easier to find money in London begging and selling Dope, a magazine published by anarchists from a bookshop in Whitechapel. They gave him copies for free each week and he got to keep the proceeds.

I asked Stephen if he felt let down by people in life. I absolutely believed him when he instantly replied: “f***ing right I do”. I gave him some euro notes I had in my wallet and he said he would go to the bank and change them.

“This life is difficult wherever you go. We’re the lowest denominator of human beings,” said Stephen. Then off he went into the crowd. There are 10,000 rough sleepers in London. Each has a story.