Probably most of us already had to spend a night in the airport because of having a flight connection only for the next day. So we landed in some unknown place, an airport, knowing that we have to find our “bed” somewhere. That wouldn´t be so interesting without having in mind two aspects of the situation. Fact one: by sleeping on the benches, the airport is the only place where we are not seen as being homeless. Fact two: the so called “high class society” is also sleeping on the benches of the airport. So the airport is the only place where nobody is at home and is not considered to be homeless. During the night spent at the airport, trying to sleep, we are all naked in our nature and equal in our vulnerability.
Unfortunately, in the morning, the neighbor sleeping next to the exchange office wakes up and arranges his mask of distinguished businessman. Will he miss the airport and come back to spend a night of this nice human adventure? Probably not. But there are some people that really use the airport as their home. This next story was published in Courrier International on the 13th of November 2008. It is about…Heathrow Airport in London.
Eram chose the terminal 1 as home. For a bit more than a year and a half she is living in the airport carrying around all her stuff in a blue cotton bag. Today, she plans to do a bit of a show case in the shopping area and perhaps get a bowl of pasta for the dinner.
As soon as the night comes, she gets asleep in the space between the American Express exchange office and the ice cream machine situated near the corridor that goes to the down floor.
The number of homeless people is increasing like never before in the British airports. It was recently discovered that 111 persons are permanently living in the Heathrow Airport and we estimate that about 20 are living in the Gatwick Airport.
First rule – not to be remarked
According to the social workers, the homeless people are obliged to play the cat and mouse game with the police and the security guards in order to avoid being thrown out. They have a bag with some clothes that they keep changing. They use the airport toilets for washing themselves and have a ‘tourist’ look. Sometimes they dress in something that looks like a travel suit in order to create the impression that they are just leaving or that they have just arrived.
“When we look like travelers, we have the chance to sleep anywhere without being bothered” says one of them.
In order not to raise suspicions, some homeless wear the flower clothes looking like they are ready to fly to the tropics. Most of them have a luggage on wheels, because this helps to mingle with the masses. Some of them pretend to be businessmen. Wearing a costume, they are hiding behind the newspaper whenever the security agent is approaching them.
Harben is a 51 years old Indian that came the Great Britain 23 years ago. I met him when he was entering the departing hall of the terminal 2 in order to spend his night there. He was wearing a summer cotton vest and wet trousers because of the rain outside. Harben chose to live in Heathrow since the luck deserted him, 6 months ago. After having broken up with his wife, he left the family home and his plumber business started to decline. “It was a respite when I found Heathrow because, since the break up with my wife, I had nowhere to go“, he says.
The evening falls on Heathrow Airport, the last planes are taking off, and the airport is getting quiet for the night. Harben is laying down on his favorite place, behind the line of sleeping passengers on the benches of the departure hall from the terminal 2. He sleeps on the floor near the Internet point. He covers himself with a coat that he found some weeks ago under the bench, and starts to snore. Not for long time though because the security agent wakes him up, grabs him by the arms and pushes him out in the rain.
“Heathrow is a quite good hotel”, Eram says, even though sometimes the police organizes raids in the airport in order to catch them.
„During the night the construction workers are really nice, they don´t betray the homeless people. And the cleaning staff also. When I wake up, I make my morning toilet and I change my clothes for not being noticed in the crowd. I look like a passenger. It happens that people ask me which flight I will take. I try to make projects for the future, but it is difficult when you have nothing and when you live in an international airport. With all that I feel happy most of the time. […] I don´t really see another future“, she admits in a low voice. I can predict that I will be fine. I don´t take drugs, I don´t drink, I don´t have mental problems. For the moment, I am not out on the streets. In fact, I could live in Heathrow forever.”