Two new homes have been built on Bow Road, about halfway along, in arches underneath the railway. There's one on each side of the road, the first near the cab company, the other by the booking shop. They're pop-up homes, helping to meet the capital's housing needs. They're sustainable homes, created out of recycled material. And they're already taken.
The first appeared a few weeks ago, as a temporary shelter from the elements for one of London's homeless. A mattress on the pavement sufficed for a bed, stored elsewhere during the day to prevent it from being stolen. I'd see the occupant, a young-ish gentleman, as I walked to the tube each morning. He'd usually be asleep, because that passes the time, with a half-read Second World War book upended by his side. And eventually what looked like a brief stay turned into a residency, and he's there every day now.
Additional home comforts have gradually accumulated, from a welcome mat out front to a Union Jack flying at the foot of the bed. Last week a stack of shelves appeared, somewhere to keep a library of books, a stash of supplies and a cuddly toy. Foodstuffs acquired included a packet of Ritz biscuits and a tub of Pringles, plus no beer, but a very necessary supply of bottled water. It being a dull life beneath a railway arch, a large boxed jigsaw somehow found its way here, and a battery operated ghetto blaster, and a set of Scrabble, should anyone stop to socialise.
A second resident set up home across the road shortly afterwards. His home was initially a little less elaborate, more a sleeping bag on the ground, but still taking full advantage of the protection the arched Victorian brickwork affords. Then his shelter developed too, and somewhat creatively. A widescreen TV packing box was broken apart to provide walls at either end, and two yellow diversion signs were 'borrowed' from a nearby street to prop up the cardboard. A colourful rug allowed the owner to read and eat without having to place his goods on the pavement. Meanwhile a scrubbed readymeal tub on a small table awaited coins or other donations, should passers by choose to throw them in.
I walk past daily but without interaction. Usually that's easy, because the residents are asleep, or elsewhere carrying out some mundane daily task. Even if they're present and awake they might be reading, or engaged in household activity, and therefore willing to let you pass unhindered. But sometimes they're looking up, in that silent pleading way that says "you have more than me, share a bit", and I harden my heart and walk on. It's not my problem is it, it's society's. Plus a one-off financial contribution's all well and good, but I have to walk this way twice a day, and a friendly gift might soon become an obligation.
At the start of this week events in the southern arch took a fresh turn. At breakfast time when I walked by there were two people on the bed, the man and a woman, having seemingly spent the night. They were sat up and chatting, nothing awkward, but I was still struck that what had looked like home for only one was suddenly taking on a new role as space for two. What does it say about the state of housing in the capital when snatches of pavement that've been empty for years suddenly acquire seemingly permanent residents for lack of proper provision elsewhere?
On Wednesday morning the entire prefab structure looked to have been kicked in. The shelves had disappeared and the carefully accumulated set of provisions vanished with them, leaving the occupant exposed to the morning's rain. It wouldn't have taken much for one drunken overnight passer-by to demolish the lot, or for someone who'd taken offence at the man's presence to pass sentence. But by Thursday things were starting to get back to normal again, as Bow Road's newest homeowner proved more than resilient, maybe even fully settled. Should we fund his escape, or does something deeper need fixing here?