A former traveller, living on benefits, squatting, begging, addicted to heroin... Carl is an anti-hero for our times. But, as this remarkably intimate portrait shows, he is also a rather ordinary human being, with ordinary domestic aspirations. Will the feelgood factor that he and his family yearn for ever materialise?
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It is a deep blue winter morning, around 9.15am, when the bailiff arrives with a soft tap at Carl's front door. Inside Carl's flat, behind the bedroom curtain, it seems barely dawn. He is just up, quite early for a heroin addict, standing unsteady in a T-shirt in the unheated gloom; his young son Jacob is clambering about, naked in his nappy; and his girlfriend Smurf is still under the covers, curled tight, refusing the day. Down the hall, the knocking goes on, gentle but insistent. They both know who it is, but Smurf only stares up at the ceiling. Carl turns and walks through their squat to the door.

A woman with a clipboard waits in the glare of the council block stairwell, a man in overalls at her side and another, packed into a leather jacket, just behind. The woman is tall and direct: legitimate tenants have been found; notice of eviction has been served; they have minutes to move out. Carl listens, looking out from behind his half-ajar door, mouth open but not speaking. The brighter light reveals his arms as muscle-thin, his feet as milky pale. The woman with the clipboard, who is middle-aged, softens a little: "I'm not being hard," she says, clotting her south London consonants until she almost adds "darling". Without her suit she could be a landlady. "I'll call housing," she goes on, more slowly. "See if I can sort something out... I am trying to help you, honest." Carl says: "Can we just have half an hour?"

Back inside, the flat is bedlam. Jacob, who is 18 months old, is running from wall to wall, crying. Three of Carl's wiry brown dogs dodge between the furniture; one of their puppies squirms at the head of his bed. And Smurf is up, straw hair matted and face sour, swearing. Carl leaves the bailiff at the door and rushes into the bedroom, head down, talking to himself in a Geordie whisper: "Shit! My boots got soaked last night. Where's my socks? I had a Filofax with paperwork and stuff in it, but it's gone..."

Half an hour is not long to sort through a life. Carl and his family have been here for nearly a year, spreading Jacob's toys on the floor, piling magazines in the corners, stocking the kitchen with cheap bottles and tins. Now Carl hauls out a metal-edged trunk, as if for boarding-school, and starts throwing their existence inside. There are dirty jeans and towels, a DIY book, bundles of 2000AD comics, tiny bottles of Body Shop banana bath oil; scissors and paperbacks, a camp bed, a red and green decorative plate. "This is humiliating," says Smurf. "We've got lazy," says Carl, grabbing and muttering, "collected all kinds of shite..." One of the dogs cowers by the trunk. "What the fuck's going on, boy?" Carl shouts. "It's an eviction!"

They quickly run out of time. Then an odd thing happens: the people in the stairwell go away. At the end of the half hour the woman knocks again, leaves a headed-paper letter to the council housing department - "... I am very concerned because included [here] are a woman with a baby ..." - and promises to come back at noon. The two men clatter down after her, out into the sunshine. In the flat, front door still ajar, something settles. Smurf feeds Jacob a chocolate bar. The sun creeps into the bedroom. Carl sits down against the wall, the trunk half-filled in front of him. "This has got to be the mellowest eviction I've ever had," he says after a while. The lull widens: 11am and 11.30am slide by, and Carl just sits there, limbs slackened, like a hungover student waiting out a dull morning. But he is not really resting - his eyes keep flicking back to the front door. Carl is waiting for his dealer.

A little before noon, the man arrives. Carl jumps up, scrapes a few coins off the floor, adds them to the pounds 20 he's borrowed from next door, and bounces out to the stairwell. He returns with a tiny twist of cellophane, perhaps the size of a fingernail. "It's meant to be a quarter of a gram," he says, "but it's 0.2 if I'm fucking generous." Putting down the twist of whitish-brown powder with the care of someone rescuing a ladybird, he fetches a sheet of metal foil from the kitchen. He smooths it, then runs his lighter slowly underneath - "It burns all the shit off so I don't get aluminium poisoning." Half the foil, coiled, makes a pipe; on the rest, he piles the powder. Smurf has left the room, but Jacob is still there, clambering and curious, as his father holds the flame below the heroin. Carl leans over, the pipe in his mouth, his world for a moment at the end of it, and draws deep, catching each curl as the smoke threads finely upward. When he looks up, his face is flushed, his eyes alive. "It's actually quite nice stuff," he says in a new voice - deeper, and cracking, as though he were about to cry. He bows his head again to the foil; Jacob scrambles closer; without leaving his pipe, Carl hands him an egg sandwich. Jacob chews and Carl draws on; a strange homeliness hovers in the sour air.

Carl and his family have been living on two thin mattresses, 2ft apart, the gap filled with biscuit wrappers and empty cans of Tennents Super. They have a television, a few paperbacks: a thriller called Chasing The Dragon lies on the windowsill. The rest of the flat is worse - a narrow interior of almost theatrical melancholy: wallpaper hanging in strips, newspaper pages scattered, a snowfall of brown-grey dust coating everything. In what was the living-room, a curtain flaps in the wind through a missing window pane; in the second bedroom, old furniture and old suitcases - relics of squatters past - block the space from floor to ceiling. And there is the smell, like the oldest rotting milk, a soaked-in, lingering swirl; it seems impossible to imagine a home here. Then, abruptly, there is no need to. Smurf calls out from the hall: "They're back!"

CARL has become used to such upheavals. He finishes his heroin - carefully, lovingly - and stumbles to the front door. He still holds the blackened foil. Carl is 27, but could pass for 10 years older. His shaved head, up close, is alarmingly delicate, with hollows and creases where young flesh should be; his voice wheezes, tired as a grandfather's. Two hard decades have done this: a childhood and adolescence and adulthood of arrests and institutions, bad jobs and evictions, fights and sudden outdoor nights.

Out beyond the stairwell where the bailiff waits - less patiently this time - the latest landscape for this struggle stretches out. Carl's block, with its crackly intercom and echoing stairs, its sickly waft of disinfectant, stands among many others. From the outside, they look fine: not too tall, well spaced by grass, council workmen cutting it for the final time before winter.

But maintenance and architecture are not enough. Along the unstained reefs of council housing, ground floor windows have grilles, are boarded. New immigrants search for dealers in halting English. This is Peckham, in south London, one of the capital's concrete hubs for hard drugs. Last month, when Scotland Yard announced its new "zero tolerance" strategy against street crime, a prototype scheme was already operating against dealers along Peckham High Street. The area is also poor, at the very centre of the blot of poverty found south of the Thames by the London Research Centre this year. And nowhere in Peckham is more deprived than where Carl has been living, in the third poorest postal sector in Britain, the boarded-up triangle below the Old Kent Road.

He does not want your sympathy, though. "I hope you're not going to write one of those bullshit feel-sorry-for-the-addict pieces," he said the first time I met him, four weeks before the eviction. "A story about a homeless person isn't going to be that different - just some poor bugger sitting there by himself."

It was midday, grey and mild. We were in the flat; Smurf was in bed and Carl mostly quiet, sitting on his mattress, watching television while he watched me. They knew about journalists. Three years ago, BBC2 used Carl's dogs for a documentary about homeless people and their pets. "We dragged the reporter down the offie with his chequebook," said Smurf, "and bought two cases of dogfood." For the first hour, we edged along. Then Carl switched off the television, and picked up one of two small medicine bottles on top of it. It was full of a white linctus; he poured a measure, and drained the methadone in an easy gulp. The family was ready to go to the pub.

Crossing the estate in the slanting light, they looked functional: Carl striding, tall in his boots and leather jacket, Smurf with Jacob in his pram, the three dogs - Oi, Dunno, and Booboo - scampering ahead. After the flat, the inner-city air felt fresh as the spray of a waterfall.

The pub was hot and stale and did not take dogs; it had a picture of Millwall FC by the bar. From his first pint of lager Carl spoke in a rush. He was born one of six brothers, in Hull in 1969, with a father who disappeared "earlier than I remember" and a mother who died of an overdose when he was six. All the boys were quickly adopted - "It was like picking sweets" - except Carl. His grandmother took him in for six months, then sent him to a children's home. He ran away, was caught, and was sent to another. "Some of the children's homes were like prisons: they locked the door behind you."

This pattern, common as sadness among the young homeless, ruled the next 10 years of his life, until Carl was old enough to qualify for a DHSS rent on a hotel room in Newcastle. One of Carl's brothers was working in the shipyard at Jarrow, and Carl got a job for three and a half days a week, dragging sheets of fibreglass around for a subsistence wage of pounds 58. It was the booming mid-1980s. For a time Carl got a council flat too, but a legitimate job meant no benefits, and the rent overwhelmed him. He lost the flat, then the job. "I couldn't be fucked with having to go somewhere on a regular basis."

At 20, he abandoned the North-east for London. There was better-paid work, almost pounds 2.50 an hour, as a security guard on the new British Library building site. Carl worked for a respectable firm, paid his tax, and at night earned more money with the same company, sleeping in empty council flats - just to prevent squatters from breaking in. "It was funny," said Carl, laughing a little. But he blew it. One night, out of greed and sympathy, he sold the keys of the flat he was minding to a group of squatters. One of them was a plant: the security firm wanted to break up the local key- selling market, where entry to flats was bought for a few hundred pounds. Carl was sacked.

He had his revenge - "I had mates on the estate where the grass lived. They went round and kicked his jaw in and smashed his flat up" - then cast around for a life. He tried drug smuggling. With a friend, he took some cocaine and hashish to Crete, concealed inside borrowed motorbikes. For three spring months they throttled back and forth across the island, selling to hotel bar owners. Then his friend crashed one of the bikes. Its owner demanded free manual labour to repay the debt. Carl slipped back to London and a semi-legal struggle of cash-only jobs and friends' sofas.

London was as bad a place as ever to be poor. So around 1990, like thousands of the underemployed, Carl went itinerant: "I started hitching around the south, going on National Express. Everywhere you go you'll find a squat where you can put your head down." After a couple of years he bought an old van, lashed up a bed and a cooker, and began "scrapping" - stripping copper piping out of empty buildings and selling it to scrapyards. Carl could earn "pounds 60 to pounds 100 a day". He paused. "That's when I had enough money to buy smack."

He wanted some now, in fact. Methadone makes a poor substitute for heroin; the morning's dose had dissipated and he was "clocking" for the real thing: tensing a little in his sticky pub seat. We went outside to call Carl's dealer.

HEROIN is the anaesthetic of the poor and anxious. Eighteenth-century paupers sought all-obliterating lassitude with laudanum, draining their opium in red wine. In the 19th century, Thomas De Quincey wrote, famously, of the "abyss of divine enjoyment" he found through opiates: "My pains had vanished... Here was a panacea for all human woes." But the drug brings ambiguous release. Heroin has calmed Carl's terrors; its costs, both mental and material, have helped his turmoil continue.

His is a peculiarly modern version of the addiction; but not the glamorous, headlined heroin "epidemic" of the successful - rock stars, barristers and bankers. Rather, Carl's dependency is part of a quieter entrapment, of the British poor. He is homeless, one of 360,000 such people counted by Shelter in 1996. Last November, the Homeless Network carried out a census of those sleeping rough in central London: almost one in six admitted to heroin addiction. Carl is a former traveller; the drugs charity Release reports heroin deadening entire travellers' sites. And Carl smokes instead of injecting; last year the Home Office found that 46 per cent of the country's addicts did so, up from 32 per cent in 1988.

Carl started four years ago, on a travellers' "park-up" in south London. Why? "It was quite nice... It's as common as hash these days. A few years ago, if you did it on a site you'd get your trailer burnt out. Now there's 60 per cent of people doing it - that's why there's no parties and raves on sites any more. Everyone's out of it ... lethargic." His van had given out, and scrapping had become harder; he tried becoming a dealer to pay for the heroin. He was hopeless: "I'm a terrible businessman. Gave out too much on tick. Then I couldn't buy any more." He has barely had a job since. "At the end of the day, I can't get out of bed at 7am unless I can get rid of my habit." Did he ever try? "Nearly every week. The longest was for six weeks..."

Then again, staying addicted requires its own willpower - not to take the drug, but to pay for it. Alongside his daily cycle of heroin need and anxiety and fulfilment, Carl operates by another, more considered routine. Most evenings, around 8pm, he catches a bus to Hungerford Bridge, and earns his money beside the Thames, as he has done since scrapping got too tiring a year ago - by begging. A fortnight before the eviction, I went along too.

His pitch was a good one, at the southern end of the bridge, just where the northbound audience swept up the steps from the Festival Hall. Carl sat in a sleeping bag, in the corner made by the steps and the side of the bridge, his dogs lying down to his left, an open holdall - for the money - to his right. Trains screeched by behind. A north wind sliced across the river. But no one could easily avoid his eyes.

Carl's method was gentle. "Spare a few pence please?" he asked in his reedy voice, and put out a coin-stained hand. "I'm not one of those beggars who stand up and hassle," he said in a gap between passers-by. "That's bang out of order." He preferred to plan. Usually, the pitch was his for only half an hour; like the other relatively lucrative spots around the South Bank, its use was divided up between all the beggars in the area, and schedules were kept to. To maximise his moment, Carl would pick up a programme from the Festival Hall and note the time each performance ended. On a favourable night - at the start of a cold snap, for example - his half hour might land him pounds 15.

This particular night was proving less successful. The police had already "hassled" him: "I just played dumb, said I had no ID... You don't expect to be nicked until nearer Christmas, when they're jealous because they know you're doing all right." Knots of people in suits and overcoats clanked up the steps and over the bridge, fast, looking straight ahead, past Carl's little pleading peninsular, with the unseeing eyes of determined non-donors. Carl stayed polite, his face turned upwards in the bridge lights, following each refusal with "That's all right" and "Good night". The wind was to blame: everyone just wanted to get home.

No one came to take his place, though. Half an hour became an hour and a half. Maybe one person in 40 stopped; it was slow, but the coins began chinking against each other in his bag. By 9.30pm he had pounds 11 and the Festival Hall was about to empty. He was talkative, a cigarette behind his ear, enjoying dispensing begging lore. There was the girl at the Waterloo station coffee shop who slipped him a free cappuccino. There were the wooden crates at the back of the Festival Hall, good for sitting on during wet nights. And there were his tips and opinions: "I get 30 per cent more because of the dogs ... But the rich don't give fuck-all. When there's an upper- middle-class event at the Festival Hall I get nothing - although I don't come home thinking, `What a bunch of bastards.' I've no right to what's in people's pockets." He kept his resentment for Big Issue sellers. "All the pitches they use are begging pitches, the best ones. But we keep them away from the waterfront." Muggers wound him up too: "I saw this old guy getting mugged, by these three young black lads - about 14 - and I chased them. Caught one, and slapped him on top of a car."

Last December, Carl's righteousness had a public airing. As part of a pre-Christmas campaign, the homeless charity Centrepoint ran a series of spoof advertisements in the Big Issue for cardboard box "homes". One photograph showed a box in the notorious Bull Ring encampment near Waterloo station; its caption read, "Purpose built bedsit in row of similar. Theft in this area is a problem, as is the occasional murder... recommended for light sleepers only." The box belonged to a friend of Carl's. He rang the Big Issue, demanding that the photograph, taken "without permission", be removed. Centrepoint dropped the campaign.

On the bridge, though, moralising was for the quiet moments. As Carl talked, the doors of the Festival Hall opened, a crowd of concert-goers fanned towards the bridge and, in half a minute, the passageway was packed, a striding mass stepping over and past him. At that moment, another two beggars arrived; Carl's earning was over. He tried to find another pitch, criss-crossing the South Bank as the visitors swarmed out and his dogs dived for scraps in bins. But there was nowhere to perch in the cold hard spaces - the wind was sharpening - and as he reached the statue of Nelson Mandela Carl made a decision. "Let's go to the Bull Ring," he said.

WE WERE not welcome. Down beneath the Waterloo roundabout, in the dim heart of the underpass maze, two dozen people were sitting round a fire. Carl said they were "mates"; their glances were less reassuring. All around, the concrete vaults stretched away, empty bottles and cardboard boxes lit up by the flames.

Most of our hosts were drinking Merrydown, staring at the wood as it burned. One of them - taller, with a crest of black hair and fierce drunk eyes - looked up and said, "Are you angry that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer?" He did not wait for an answer: "I've known more pain than Jesus Christ." Carl buried himself in another conversation. The tall man's harangue went on, part taunt, part threat. The others just sat in their cider worlds, half-listening. On the other side of the fire, Carl picked up the signals.

We hurried away before a fight could spark. Afterwards, in a pub steaming with hot-plates and red-cheeked late commuters, Carl was embarrassed. "Down there you've got to have a tidemark round your neck before they think you're sound. That guy Mark has gone odd. He used to be fine, but I had a fight with him when I was living down in Kent. We were roasting a pig for Hallowe'en and it fell in the fire." Carl sank his pint: "I've only spent the odd night in the bull-ring. I couldn't live in that squalor." He was heading home to Peckham. Smurf had dinner waiting.

This was the domesticity hidden by their flat's dust and clutter. What looked like sickly chaos - the amorphous hell presumed to consume the heroin-addicted, the homeless - was actually a family, struggling, but a level or two above despair. Carl began settling down, after a fashion, in 1992, soon after he discovered heroin. He already had his dogs, sleeping beside him, scampering to heel when he called; now, on his site in south London, he met Smurf. She was four years younger, a runaway too, and rapidly smitten. He was too slow with drugs to notice: "When Carl was cooking and I was chopping my wood," says Smurf, "I'd take him some. It took all his mates to tell him I fancied him."

As a teenager, Smurf had endured a miscarriage; doctors had told her she would never have children. Jacob's birth last year was a victory: "I wouldn't give him up for the world." And having a child stopped her and Carl travelling - perhaps just in time. At their last site, in Crowborough, near Tunbridge Wells, Carl had driven himself close to collapse with his constant shuttling to London to buy heroin. One night he got drunk and stumbled across a road into the path of a car. His knees needed pins; more than two years later, kneeling is still painful.

Back in London with Jacob, Carl and Smurf slept on friends' floors until the start of this year. Then they found their flat, and a kind of stability. The economics of this were precise, but delicate. Carl received pounds 74 in weekly invalidity benefits; Smurf pounds 64 of income support. Begging might add another pounds 50, for a total of around pounds 190. The heroin took three-quarters of that; the rest was squeezed for bread and pasta sauce, dogfood and baby clothes from Peckham market. Electricity came by cable from next door for pounds 5 a week: the woman there was an ex-squatter. Even the Tennents ring-pulls were saved up for a free gift offer; Carl collected enough for a watch, a shirt, and a denim jacket.

Pride sustained this. "I hate junkies," Carl is fond of saying. "They'll rip you off, steal your gear." A friend says Carl always pays back borrowed money. And Carl's drug use has a careful quality. Unlike most smokers, he has never moved on to injecting, for a faster, warmer, less controllable rush. He worries about Aids, overdoses: "A friend of mine OD'ed right here," he announced one morning in the flat. "He died on me. I had to jump up and down on his ribs [to revive him]. Scared the shit out of me." But what about damage to Jacob? Carl looked at the floor: "I just wish we could have a gaff for him, a smoother lifestyle. He doesn't notice now, but in a year or two... We've got to be stable or it's going to affect him." And damage to Carl? "I've never thought anywhere was my home, even if I got a roof over my head."

TWO WEEKS later, the returning bailiff removes even that. This time she has two men in overalls at her shoulder, carrying a thick metal door. They hoist it into the entrance of the flat and begin bolting it over the original. Carl and his family are still inside.

The final panic comes: Carl, stumbling, still heroin-groggy, drags the trunk through the flat; Smurf stuffs food into carrier-bags and dumps Jacob in the stairwell; he climbs out of his pushchair and throws plastic cups down the stairs; the dogs watch them bounce and clatter, all the way down. The carpenters start closing the metal door. A last basket of clothes is too wide: Carl jams it through. That's it - except for one of the puppies: it's still inside. The workmen hold the door; it comes out in a saucepan, shivering. They turn the key. The bailiff lights Smurf a cigarette and says, "All the best."

Carl's next-door neighbour takes in most of their gear. Jacob is strapped into his pushchair, and the family steps outside. The afternoon sun warms a little, yet the air chills, the first frost waiting for dusk. "We'll stay at a friend's," says Carl. But he is jumpy as we walk towards the local housing office, darting between council blocks, looking for empty flats. At Southwark social services, he takes a ticket and waits, without much expectation - as itinerant benefit claimants Carl and Smurf are low on the housing list, and the dogs keep them out of most bed-and-breakfasts. I leave them outside the doorway, sitting close together against a wall, the sun sinking, the puppy still shivering.

A few days later, a friend of theirs tells me what happened. Smurf and Jacob were accepted by a charity hostel in Streatham. Carl is in Covent Garden, with the dogs. He is expecting to sleep outside until January. !