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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 August, 2004, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Life in the lounge
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Next month sees the release of The Terminal, Hollywood's take on the true story of a man who lives in an airport. But what is life among the baggage carousels really like?

Burdened with debt and uncertain where his future lay, George decided it was time to walk out on his life.

Looking for somewhere warm and dry to sleep, he pitched up at Heathrow Airport and stayed for the best part of two-and-a-half years, surviving homelessness in its relative safety and comfort.

George is not the only one to have found a place amid the benches, shops and restaurants provided for the world's travellers.

Next month Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal is released, starring Tom Hanks as a character based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian exile who set up home in Paris' Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport 16 years ago, while caught in a diplomatic limbo.

Having sold the rights to his story and offered the papers he needs to move on, Mr Nasseri could live almost anywhere in the world, but chooses to stay put on his vinyl bench.

Many others turn to airports in times of hardship, making the most of a few snatched hours off the streets, before security staff move them on.

Best titbits

It was the anonymity afforded by the crowds of travellers that revealed Heathrow as a place of refuge for George, who does not want to reveal his surname in order to protect his family.

George returns to Heathrow
George tried to stay inconspicuous amid Heathrow's crowds

Life at the airport quickly became routine: "Days fall into each other really quickly, a day becomes a week, becomes a month, becomes a year and you don't really keep track of any of it," he says.

Every morning George would wake as the first waves of passengers arrived, helping himself to the food they left, or the past-their-best titbits which the restaurants discarded.

Tips on a good area to find food or relax were shared with other homeless people in the airport, a small community forming among them.

"You'd get one area that was good and then the police would cotton on to it, so you would go to another area and it would get passed around to all the people that were staying here," says George.

There's toilets, there's running water, it's more attractive than sleeping rough in a doorway in central London
Travel Care

Despite being known to police and security staff, the sheer size of Heathrow's four terminals meant it was always possible to return.

The toilets and showers provided for travellers allowed George and the others to stay presentable, and therefore fairly inconspicuous.

"The majority of people I know that were doing this kept themselves clean and tidy. You had to in this situation otherwise you did stand out," says George.

Finding people to chat to was also straightforward: "You tended to talk to passengers as opposed to staff, because you didn't really want to make out that you were homeless, so you would invariably tell people that you were travelling."

Dishevelled passengers

It was in 1999 that George went missing, his two-and-half years around Heathrow taking place at a time when security was important but still to become as tight as it is today.

UK airports operator BAA are confident there are no long-term residents still at Heathrow, but homeless people regularly manage to disguise themselves among the throngs for the odd night or two.

Police and security staff are on the look-out for people who are not flying to or from the airport, but with dishevelled passengers often sleeping on benches as they wait for a flight, it can be difficult.

"It's not always feasible to know what the exact circumstances of people are," says a BAA spokesman.

"Certainly we encounter, over a period, tens of these homeless people."

Bad weather

At Heathrow a social work agency, Travel Care, works with police and airport staff to put homeless people in touch with agencies that can help them.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri
Life is an airport for Mehran Karimi Nasseri

While the numbers involved are not huge, there is a definite increase in rough sleepers when the weather takes a turn for the worse, says a spokeswoman.

It's not difficult to understand why: "There's toilets, there's running water, it's more attractive than sleeping rough in a doorway in central London."

Despite the appeal of Heathrow and, to a lesser extent other UK airports, the line is that the homeless cannot just stay there.

"Our policy is, through the police, to move them on and, where possible, to offer assistance through the local authority," says BAA.

'Wasted'

Through a campaign mounted by the National Missing Person's Helpline, George's mother discovered he was at Heathrow.

She travelled to the airport to look for him many times, eventually spotting him by chance when she went to collect another family member from a flight.

Now in his own flat, George is happy to be back in touch with the family he left behind amid a cloud of debts accumulated at college and a life of getting "wasted" on drugs and alcohol.

"I could have spoken for hours with her that day," he recalls of his chance meeting with his mother.

Meanwhile the subject of The Terminal, Mr Nasser, chooses to remain on his airport bench, surrounded by trolleys containing the possessions he has accumulated.

Celebrity or not, he has grown accustomed to life in Terminal One and appears set to stay in his home.

George's story is told in The Day They Disappeared, and broadcast in the UK on BBC One at 2100BST on Tuesday.


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