Books

'When you have nothing you have everything': The fascinating story of two men who live outside

When Emma Tarlo met two men who have been living in a park for 20 years they changed her perspective on those sleeping outside

Illustration: Giovanni Simoncelli

In April 2020 at the beginning of the first lockdown I met two very unusual men, Nick and Pascal, who for five years had been living and sleeping rough without a tent under some hornbeam trees in a quiet corner of Regent’s Park. They had lived alongside each other without shelter in London’s streets and parks for over 16 years.

Nick, in his 60s, and Pascal, in his 40s, make an unusual pair – not least because they do not regard themselves as homeless and express positive views about being outside. They appreciate the beauty of a dawn sky and moonlit night. They endure rain, frost and snow with equanimity. 

They talk of how the world is their home rather than associating the idea of home with a physical structure and they express a strong love of freedom. Their original perspectives feature in my book, Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open, which documents the year in which we became friends.  

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But although they do not perceive themselves as homeless, Nick and Pascal still have to confront the negative stereotypes attached to homelessness and the hardship, insecurity and lack of privacy. Even if they have made an art of living well in the open, this is not an easy option. When Suella Braverman glibly referred to homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” – a phrase more suited to the big sell of glossy Sunday supplements than to the struggle for survival in Britain’s streets at a time of rising prices and shrinking opportunities – it showed a total ignorance of the many challenges people face living without shelter. 

Being outside means confronting the vagaries of the weather, the intervention of the police, the possibilities of violence and the unpredictable attitudes and behaviour of passers-by as well as not knowing where the next meal is coming from. All of these are things Nick and Pascal have confronted in their 20 years of sleeping outside. One of the many things they taught me is the vital importance of conversation for breaking down social barriers and ill-conceived value judgements.

Many people who live in the comfort of houses are awkward when they see people lying in the street. They don’t know whether to look or what to say, so often take the easy option of turning the other way and remaining ignorant of how many fellow citizens live. 

Nick and Pascal were skilled at breaking through that awkwardness. They would offer a friendly wave to passers-by, get to know their dogs or make an amusing comment which broke the ice and reminded people that what we share in common as humans is more important than what divides us. Many people responded well to this opportunity for conversation and exchange.

Emma Tarlo, author of Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open
Emma Tarlo, author of Under the Hornbeams

When I first asked how they managed for food, Nick said, “We manage. People are kind. They bring us things. They get something out of it because they feel good about giving, and it’s good for us as we get to eat the food.” He was right. Throughout the year, I got into the habit of cooking for Nick and Pascal most days and gained much from the experience of sharing not just food but conversation and ideas with them. Any awkwardness that might have been present in our first encounter soon withered away. They became the people I looked forward to seeing and spending time with each day – a joy at a time when social interaction inside was forbidden owing to the lockdown regulations of the pandemic. 

Soon we were sharing books and ideas, exchanging news and observations and discovering just how much we had in common. I also noticed how many other people, whether housed or unhoused, shared aspects of their lives with Nick and Pascal, often relating quite personal things they might find difficult to discuss with their own families.

Far from fulfilling Braverman’s image of homeless people as antisocial, Nick and Pascal generated a sense of community around them and offered an important listening ear to people coping with the stresses of life. It was straight to the park and to Nick and Pascal that one man went when diagnosed with terminal cancer. They were the first people he told and the ones who helped him come to terms with the shock of the diagnosis. Later they attended his funeral. 

Once when I was walking in the park with Nick we met an elderly man who had not seen him for two years since he no longer lived in London.  

“How are you?” he asked, pleased to see Nick’s familiar face.  

“How do I look?” Nick asked back.  

“You look very well.”  

“I’ve come to the conclusion that when you have nothing, you actually have everything,” Nick commented. 

“How so?” 

“Because it brings out the best in people.”  

Staying positive without a roof over your head requires Herculean strength of mind and body. Nick and Pascal are in many ways exceptional in their ability to do this. They have learned how to live in the moment, appreciate the beauty of nature and bring out the best in other people. They are the living proof that we should never make generalisations about other people’s lives, but rather recognise the uniqueness of each person’s life story. That said, many of the stories that lead people to the street are extremely tough. 

Living outside is never an easy option and as a society it is our duty to provide affordable housing rather than blame rough sleepers for the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open by Emma Tarlo out now (Faber & Faber, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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