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Last Updated: Monday, 24 April 2006, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Park and write
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Living in a car

A homeless woman in London has been living in a car since last summer. But by writing a blog she has put herself in touch with an international audience.

It's a tale of our time - about being cut off from everything around you but still connected to people thousands of miles away.

A woman becomes homeless, so she gets into her car and drives. Except she has nowhere to go - so she stays in the car, with all her possessions heaped in the back, sleeping in the front seats, parking in secluded streets.

For eight months, no one notices her, because she makes sure she looks respectable, taking showers and even ironing her clothes in public places like hospitals. She has made herself invisible, out of touch from anyone she used to know - and keeping separate from other homeless people.

But this is the information age. And even though she doesn't speak to anyone, she can go into a library where she can access the internet and write an online journal - a homelessness blog - which she uses to describe all her unspoken experiences and feelings.

'Bizarre life'

So even though she has no one to talk to in London, using the identity of Wandering Scribe, she's exchanging e-mails with people in the United States - and the New York Times interviews her for its own story on homeless people living in cars. There's even talk of a documentary about her.

WANDERING SCRIBE
Keyboard
This blog is where I come to be honest about my homelessness, not dishonest about it. I spend the rest of the day 'outside' in the 'real' world being dishonest about it, trying my hardest to cover it all up

How did this happen? How does an articulate, educated woman in her early 30s end up living in a car?

Describing herself as feeling "ashamed" to be caught in this "bizarre life", the author of this Wandering Scribe blog wants to remain anonymous. But she explains how, last August, she began living in a car.

As with most cases, there wasn't a single trigger for her homelessness, but a series of practical and emotional problems that built into a crisis.

Having already lost her job and with money problems, she was struggling to pay the rent. A previous relationship had ended - and last summer she says she went through what she now recognises as a psychological breakdown.

"Psychological problems can happen to anyone. If you're lucky you've got your friends and family to support you - but I had a problem and had no one to support me," she says.

Alone and without anywhere to turn, she got into her car and started driving.

'Ashamed'

"It was frightening. The only way I could survive was not to think about it, to become detached, because if I thought about it, I just couldn't do it."

WANDERING SCRIBE
Steering wheel
My body is deformed from all this cold and fear. Woke with stiff, painful joints, and every muscle, in every part of me, feels like flint. Today, all I want to do is lay down on a flat surface. A hard, flat, warm surface

"In denial" about being homeless, she kept away from other homeless people and deliberately concealed how she was living.

"I was ashamed of letting go of the reins of my life, and having nothing to back it up, without having any support network. What kind of person are you if you don't have friends? But it happens."

Her life has since become a surreptitious daily round of using public places for washing, keeping clean and staying warm, using her benefits to pay for petrol and food - and spending her nights in a sleeping bag, trying to keep warm in a car.

She says that it's "exhausting, I'm at the end of my tether", worn down by a lack of sleep, fears about being thrown out of her regular haunts.

Ambiguity

But in parallel with this grim experience, there is a separate writing life in the blog, revealing her inner-life, giving her a voice as Wandering Scribe - a process which has allowed her to reach out from her parked car to a global audience.

WHY PEOPLE BECOME HOMELESS
Homeless woman in hostel
Family and friends unable or unwilling to accommodate them: 38%
Relationship breakdown: 20%
End of rented or shorthold tenancy, mortgage or rent arrears: 23%
Other, including mental health problems: 19%
Source: ODPM, March 2006

It's often powerfully written, giving a human face to anonymous suffering, talking about her childhood, her sense of rejection and her struggle to regain her confidence and self-respect.

There is also a close-up view of the daily struggle of homelessness - the fears of sleeping in her car, her small victories in keeping warm, how she cleans her hair in hospital showers and gets discount food in staff canteens.

This blog has produced its own regular readership - people who e-mail when its author doesn't post the next instalment. And she says that the blog has become an attempt to "keep me sane, and in a way to start to reach out".

The blog's anonymity is also part of this modern tale. As with any such online journal, there's an ambiguity about its origin. One can't see the author, or even know her real name.

There have been e-mails questioning whether this blog is a media "project", rather than a genuine account of homelessness - a charge she wearily rejects.

In her blog this weekend, she wrote: "Some people see you struggling and want your complete downfall, living in my car is not bad enough, they want me on the streets completely, in every sense. I feel that."

Her main aim now is to begin making the return journey to a settled life, she says, as she begins looking for a job - a process made more difficult by a lack of a permanent address.

'Hidden homeless'

If the stereotype of homelessness is of unkempt boozers sleeping rough, Wandering Scribe doesn't fit any of these expectations.

WANDERING SCRIBE
Took my boots off, walked up and down a few times barefoot. Was agony, blissful, painful agony. Never get a chance to stand barefoot.

Meeting her in person, she is dressed respectably; is intelligent, observant, engaging company. She could be the person sitting next to you in the cafe. Which makes it even stranger that she's going back each night to a nylon sleeping bag in a battered old Rover.

But she certainly isn't alone - she says she has had e-mails from other people living in cars - and in anonymous cities it's all too easy for detached people who have problems in their lives to stumble and fall out of sight.

The scale of the problem of such "hidden homelessness" remains uncertain, but homeless charity Crisis estimates that there could be 380,000 such people across the country.

"A very common factor is family breakdown - and a lack of social networks - where there is no one able to support people," says Lucy Maggs. "A huge part of homelessness is about isolation - which becomes very destructive in itself."

Such disconnected individuals, who are often "not in a frame of mind to help themselves" are unable or unwilling to contact any support agencies and remain off the radar for homelessness statistics.

Wandering Scribe has her own ambitions: "Hopefully I'll be out of here soon, somewhere with my own room where I can shut the door on the world ... with curtains I can draw."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

A truly, remarkable tale, of something out of a Dickensian novel, that you would have thought impossible in 21st Century Blair's Britain. I hope this lady gets a break, my God she deserves it.
William Wilson, Glasgow

This is definitely not an isolated case. I know several men who have lived, at least temporarily, in cars following marriage or relationship break-ups. It makes you realise how lucky you are to have a bedroom door to shut and a cosy bed to sleep in, something all of us in this country take for granted.
Mike Gibson, London

I was getting into my car to leave a hotel carpark last summer and realised that the car parked next to mine had someone living in it. This was a mid-30s man, a little unkempt, but not a tramp. The car clearly was a home, not just a means of transport. I thought it was an isolated case, but it's starting to look as if this is not uncommon.
Nicky, Newcastle

I can't explain just how much I sympathize with this woman. My own mother has lived in her car for the last year. She works five days a week and is currently working on her Master's degree. She washes her clothes, showers, and hides her condition from most of the world. Some suggest that people like her should be in shelters. But what would my proud, college-educated mother do in a place full of strangers and drunkards? She feels safer in her car, knowing she can leave whenever she wishes. Best of luck to Wandering Scribe, and all of the others who find themselves in a similar situation.
Yates, Sacramento, USA

I too have been what is called "homeless at home" following marital breakdown. The only reason I was offered a hostel was because i had a child. A friend of mine wasnt so lucky and ended up sleeping in her car. This is not an isolated case but a huge problem, spurred on by lack of affordable housing
Michelle, Southampton

A moving account, reminding us that homelessness can happen to anyone. We recently helped a young man get his own place, who had been sleeping in his car for six months, also in London.
Ian Joseph, HOPE worldwide, London

I also lived out of my car for about a year. It was personally very humiliating, but luckily, I started going to school, and it made all the difference in the world (for me).
Ervin Raab, Los Angeles

I work for a charity that helps single homeless people - who are regarded as no-priority by the local authorities. Many of our clients that come to us are sleeping in their cars, sleeping on friends sofa and even at their place of work! This homelessness issue is a lot bigger than people think.
Carla, London

After a relationship break-up I also lived in my car and found it to be extremely difficult both mentally and physically. It's the isolation which is most stressful along with the long dark nights. I had friends but they had their own lives and ultimately went home to their houses and families at night.
A Shaw, Torbay

I lived out of my car for about 4.5 months while working a seven days a week job. It was the most tiring experience I every had. I always thought that I would get another place to live one day and that thought never left my mind. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to get.
Robert, Austin, Texas

I am to become homeless myself soon due to my landlady selling the house. I have a four year old cat which makes it difficult to find a place but, I am lucky, I have a van which we can move into. I am working and hope we can get somewhere to live but if not, we have our van and will make that our home. I am both touched and heartened by this lovely woman's blog and it gives me hope.
Derek Flint, London

Wandering Scribe has her own ambitions: "Hopefully I'll be out of here soon, somewhere with my own room where I can shut the door on the world ... with curtains I can draw." I'll be praying that this simple wish comes true. A very moving story that seems so unreal when you consider how much wealth there is in this country. Something is wrong with us, surely?
Andy Cox, London

I think it's terrible that in modern Britain a woman has to live like this. Has this country become so cold to others? I hope this poor woman is able to find somewhere to stay and gets a new job soon.
Carol Jappy, Grangemouth, Scotland

If she has a large and loyal readership, then perhaps her break will come in the form of a publication deal? From what I've read, she seems articulate enough. Any game publishers out there?
John Valentine, Moray

There is no need for anyone to be homeless. There are very many tireless, selfless people doing paid and voluntary work to help people like this woman. She knows this and her refusal to go to them is an insult. It is her choice to live on the street and it will be her fault if something bad happens to her. The opportunity to help herself is there.
Huw Roberts, Creigiau, Caerdydd, Wales

This story just shows how much we need to change as a nation. Jade Goody makes the front page for failing to finish the London mararthon and these type of stories go untold.
Andrew Summers, Belfast

I was long term unemployed from 1984 to 1986, then in 2001, suffered a Psychological breakdown myself. Didn't recover until 2004. Both times I was lucky enough to have support from Dad and Mum. I repayed their kindness by purchasing the home and paying the mortgage in 1996. Dad passed away in 2002, Mum in 2005. Just paed the Mortgage off from their estate. I hope the publicity from the Blog, leads to receiving their own break in life.
Colin Bartlett, Abingdon. Oxfordshire

You can also be homeless even if you have a home. No support network, money problems, health problems, no family close by, no friends close by. I might as well be living in a car. I feel trapped, alone, in pain, lonely and depressed. Cut off from the world by a few bricks. I empathise completley with this woman.
Mark, UK

To Mark, UK, please make a phone call. Contact SANELINE on 0845 767 8000 or ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 - you don't have to feel suicidal, you just have to need to hear a friendly voice. And we all need that sometimes. It's OK to need people and not know how to find them. Please hang on to the idea that other people need you too. Take care of yourself, my love, you deserve it!
Amanda, Bradford

Shame on us...we're all only a few steps away...
Jacob Kelly, Richmond, VA USA

I find it very hard to feel sorry for these people who simply refuse to contact homeless shelters and other organisations which are out there to help people back on their feet. It's like they're choosing to stay homeless over the pain of facing up to their own mistakes in order to get over them.
Jennifer, Netherlands

Very sad to read but what an amazingly strong person to keep going when many would have slipped deeper into a depressed state. I hope things work out for this lady
Neil, London

In many ways my story is similar. Currently, I face the same prospect. The element of your story that sparks this comment is the bit about being "unable or unwilling to contact any support agencies and remain off the radar for homelessness statistics". Well, let me tell you that there is absolutely nothing to be gained by doing so if you are a relatively undamaged single person. You will get nothing. Most people will not believe this to be true, but it is and I can prove it. The system is overburdened with more "deserving" cases. Most people believe we have a welfare state from cradle to grave. We do not. The problem starts there and gets - rapidly - much, much worse...
Nicholas Cullum, England

It seems to me a sad indictment of our shallow, media-obsessed age that somebody like this should think it a more worthwhile use of their time and effort to write a "blog" than to try and sort themselves out by making social contacts and efforts to get housing.
Bertie, Stockport

It's very easy in this cold hard world for even a normal, professional, respectable looking person to have no friends or support systems. I was the same for several years but fell the other way and ended up getting married and then developing a good friends and support network. I could just as easily have fallen the other way and ended up like Wandering scribe. We must change our selfish remote society before it is too late - this is happening too often to be comfortable now!
Marty, Seaford

If all this is true, and I'm yet to be convinced, I think its a load of self-indulgent claptrap. There is plenty of government and private help available to this person, both medical and financial. But if she chooses not to take it, spending time to set up and maintain a blog instead, and then cry about it, then good luck. You have to question this person's priorities. Come on people, assuming this person really does live in a car, this is clearly a middle class stunt by someone who probably has a Visa or Amex card in the glove box, just in case.
Stuart, Ipswich

Having been through similar circumstances (through divorce and redundancy), though with not quite the same results (I didn't have a car), I can sympathise completely. And it's perfectly true that the so-called support organisations are overburdened; if you're white, educated, middle-class, single and healthy, you really don't have a chance making it to the top of the list, even though these problems can hit anyone at anytime. I'm slowly getting back on my feet, but it's been a hard and painful journey, and there's still a long way to go. I wish this lady well, and hope she makes it.
Rob, London

This is a quirky thing - a woman dwelling in a car. I appreciate her determination, it's bizarre she is living in that conditions.
Krishna, Hyderbad, India

I am very sceptical about this story. I think it is a media stunt. Very clever, but not clever enough.
Kathryne Mac, Berkshire

It is so shocking to learn of such stories happening in the UK with so much wealth. What is wrong with you guys?. You are a terribly cold society. Shame on you!
Owen Mbotwa, Malawi

I wish I knew an address I could send her just enough to go and buy herself a frothy coffee and treat herself. Not to be patronising - just to be a friend. She deserves a helping hand and I'd give it freely if she were only closer.
Jacqueline Campbell-Murdoch, Perth

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