Roofless, but not without neighbours and a home

Cardboard City is being dismantled to make way for a multiplex. Rachel Newsome meets the citizens who don't want to leave - even for a room of their own
ANOTHER DAY in the twisted paradise of Cardboard City, and buses beep overhead, Volvos brake, and brokers on bikes wobble through the traffic, while commuters walk along the underpass just feet away. Tom and his best mate Rob (they've knocked about for 15 years), Gary, Amby, and 12 or so others are sitting below on old sofas and battered dentist chairs around a fire which has been kept alight since people first began living here in 1978. They are the last survivors of London's most famous (Gary has appeared on Kilroy) homeless community.

As integral to London's sights as Tower Hill, the Bullring's unique community is unlike any other in the country, with hundreds of people living here at its peak. Around the fire, telly is watched (there's a clapped-out set which is wired to an electricity supply somewhere in Waterloo), Tennents is slugged, joints rolled, jokes cracked and brave faces put on to mask the convoluted and sometimes painful routes that have brought people here. Amby even has a song about it: "You see us here, you see us there, but we're from the Bullring and we don't care."

Plans for a pounds 20-million cinema complex belonging to the British Film Institute, and to be built in the Bullring marks the end of an era for the City. An eviction order served by Lambeth North Council last month giving people 28 days to leave has already been exceeded. It is only a matter of time before a futuristic multi-screen cinema will be soaring out of the hole in the road where the Bullring is now, its shiny exterior gleaming on the Waterloo horizon by Spring 1999.

In anticipation of the exodus, North Lambeth have taken responsibility for re-settling its population elsewhere. A Waterloo Bullring consortium set up to monitor the area since the early 1990s is overseeing the closure and helping rough sleepers find new accommodation. "Considerable effort", says Shelter, has been made to provide a roof for the cardboard community. Of the original 25 to 30 people the council have recorded as living in the Bullring over the past year, 18 have been housed or are soon to be in stand-by accommodation. Meanwhile a surgery has been set up to smooth the transition to sheltered accommodation, although no long-term housing has been arranged.

Incredulous at the loss of their right to choose where they live, Tom, Rob and their resilient cohabitants remain. Resolutely anarchist (their manifestos are daubed across the concrete ballasts) in outlook, Cardboard City's cause has been co-opted by London's traveller and squat community. They transformed the city into a concrete Armageddon, underground-techno sound systems were wheeled in for a two-day rave. The volume was turned up, the bpms accelerated and the stale air of the Bullring blasted by techno-gabba as a thousand people descended on ,the ring, dancing on trucks and around fires.

But by the following afternoon, the chemicals had taken over, order had dissolved and the Bullring reeked of urine, where party-goers had pissed on their beds. Gary shrugs it off: offers of re-settlement from the council seem no more desirable, even though construction work has already begun.

At 58, he has two sets of girl twins ("They don't really think of me as Dad, it's less formal than that") and another child on the way. He met the mother, he beams, one afternoon while rooting through empties in a bottle bank. But the conversation always comes back to his thalidomide wife who died 14 months ago down here in the ring. "I miss her like mad."

In rolls Amby, clutching dayglo lights. Amby is 32 but has the figure and demeanour of a 16-year-old. She grins showing a black hole where her front teeth should be and turns up her Walkman. "This'll make you jump," she giggles. Her tape is playing coruscating speed metal at top volume. It does.

Kim Basinger, reckons Gary, lives just around the corner and they've seen Helen Mirren out and about, too. But athough they share the same A-Z grid reference as the South Bank, the Bullring is an autonomous zone with little connection to everyday life outside. It's a world where confusion, exclusion and rejection produce a strange sense of logic; a world, according to Rob, where boxes of food thrown into the underpass by local shops are part of a conspiracy to kill them. "It's poisoned you know," he warns, as another box thuds to the ground. Shaking his head: "I wouldn't touch that, it's the government trying to get rid of us all."

Although the council has offered alternatives, nothing, say Cardboard City's hardcore, can replace the Bullring. But more to the point, they don't want the council's help. "I may not have a house but this is my home," is Tom's set speech. "These people are my family, and I'm not going anywhere."

It comes down to dignity: to reject society rather than let it reject you is the illusion of having some kind of control over your life. But what happens when the final hour strikes? Where will Gary and Rob and Tom and Amby go?

"Where do you think?" they retort. "Under the Millennium Dome of course."