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I Lived in Every Hostel in London

I was a well-educated, middle class young man with a good job. And then, overnight, I found myself homeless.
6.9.16

Someone – not the writer – in a hostel in London (Photo: Jake Lewis)

Trafalgar Square at night wasn't unusual to me – I'd been drunk and gobbing through a McDonald's here enough times before. People were doing just as I usually did, stumbling for the bus along Charing Cross. The homeless men and women were scrunching up on the benches. Street cleaners were readying themselves to clear the debris.

But this particular night was unusual; for the first time, I was one of the people on the benches. Out of nowhere, I had become one of Britain's 14,000 homeless young people.

Annons

A few weeks earlier I'd been made redundant from my graduate job. The deposit on my flat had been used to cover the final month's rent, and I was left broke and alone in a city I'd called home since moving here as a teenager.

The humiliation of homelessness was too much for me to admit my situation to anybody. I texted a friend claiming to be locked out. He couldn't help that night, and I couldn't bring myself to text more friends with the lie. He did, however, suggest I check in to a hostel. That's when it started.

There are tons of hostels across London. You can get one for as little as £8 [€9.5] a night; it's great for a cheap bed. Checking in for my first night, it felt like a miracle – I'd found a get out of jail free card from being one of the bench people. I could pretend to just be visiting, or that my flat was flooded, or to have missed the last Tube – all things I told receptionists to avoid the judgemental looks.

Of course, they probably knew anyway. As VICE reported last year, about a third of beds in hostels are taken by people calling it home. [Sixty-eight percent](http://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/201512 - Young and Homeless - Full Report.pdf) of homeless service providers reported an increase in demand from young people last year. [Six in ten](http://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/201512 - Young and Homeless - Full Report.pdf) of those young and homeless people are studying or in some form of work. And, in truth, it's probably higher than that – not a person in the world knew I was homeless, let alone the statisticians.

I didn't have the money for a flat deposit, nor a permanent job. The occasional shifts of work I could get would cover the hostel beds plus the Tube fares. Typically I'd budget £1 a day on discounted bread from the shop, then slide a couple of chocolate bars up the sleeve of my coat. No security guard ever caught me, and those big shops probably have some shitty tax evasion scheme anyway, so it felt like an act of political rebellion.

Annons

My family are deeply homophobic. When I came out as gay, my grandmother called me a pervert and my bigoted aunty and uncle made jokes about gay people over Christmas dinner, all of them laughing along. The attention-seeking gay kid going off to London hardly went down well; going back, tail between my legs, simply wasn't an option. I'd rather sleep on a bench than in a closet.

Soon the hostels became home, shacked up in rooms with as many as 20 other people. There's a routine of disruption to living in a hostel. The late-night tourist chatter drags on to midnight. Then the later night revellers getting in from some shit club. Then early morning workers wake you up as they don fluorescent jackets and mutter in Polish. Before you know it, it's 10AM, you've hardly slept and some cleaner is shouting at you to get out of their hostel because you've missed check out. Another day pretending not to be homeless has begun.

Most days I'd take my backpack of belongings and lumber out of the hostels, fatigued, looking to fill the day before finding the next bed. The fear that someone might know what I was doing was so intense that I had to keep moving. If I just stayed there, they'd know the truth. Many set a limit of two weeks stay anyway, presumably to stop people like me from hanging around too long.

I couldn't admit my reality to a single friend. I hung out with them less frequently, either because I couldn't afford what they were doing or because the walk to get there from the hostel was too far. When I did, I would have to pretend to be going back to where I claimed to live, or say I was off to the shop and hide until they'd all gone. Then I could make my real journey, whatever it was that particular night.

Annons

As I scroll down the hostel comparison sites writing this, I don't spot a single one I haven't slept in. I slept in every hostel in London.

READ: I Lived in a London Hostel for a Week to See If it Could Be the Cure to My Rising Rent

One night I turned up at a new hostel in Edgware. It was gone midnight as I'd spent forever on a bus to save the cost of a Tube to Zone 4. The man behind reception knew my name already. "I thought it was you. You've stayed in a couple of the hostels I manage," he said, his comment hanging on my ears.

I found one hostel in north-west London that was so shitty, so grotesque, so badly run that I could sneak in after midnight without the staff noticing I hadn't paid for a bed. Its ceilings were clapped out, with sheets of plaster peeling away. The mattresses were plastic-covered and thin. There were so many people in a room that the rising heat would condensate and drip on to you in the night.

Once I was in I would hover around the door to a room, pretending to be on my phone or fetching something from my bag, then tailgate a real guest into the room. Being late at night it would be dark, so I'd quickly scan the room by phone light to spot an empty bed, then climb in as if it were mine. You couldn't book a bed after 11:59, so the hostel's website would show if there were spare beds. And there always were, because no one in their right mind would want to sleep there.

Annons

If that didn't work, there was always sex. Not in the hostels, but as a way to avoid them. Some nights I'd sit back in Trafalgar Square, scrolling through Grindr, looking for someone who'd have me over to fuck. Then I could say, "It's too late to get home, can I leave in the morning?"

One night I headed to a penthouse in Covent Garden. The guy looked like a total DILF in his pics. But when he opened the door in just Y-fronts, he was old and ugly, and though his body was toned, it was sagging like any other man in his fifties. But I had no choice – it was gone 11:59, too late to return to a hostel. I bent over to take his cock and looked up at a TV, the cost of which could have kept a roof over my head for months.

This is a lesson in how easily things can fall apart. I'm not writing this to say, "Boo-ho, middle-class white boys fuck up, too." The rental market and the job insecurity of modern Britain – and London especially – can chew you up and spit you out practically overnight. Not having a family to go back to left me trapped. Homeless charity Centrepoint say my story is true of one in seven people under 25, for at least one night.

I eventually got a decent paid job again, and with it ended my time living in every hostel in London. Things are good today, but a sense of shame lingers, so I write this piece under a pseudonym.

More on VICE:

I Am One of Britain's Hidden Homeless

This Guy Kidnaps Homeless, Drug-Addicted Kids and Takes Them to His DIY Rehab Farm