Explorer, author, trail prospector & travel writer

On The Stigma Of Homelessness And The Dilemma Of The Creative Non-Conformist

The other day I went to a birthday party here in London. I knew the host through a mutual friend in the adventure world, upon whose fringes I seem to drift.

The guest-list read like a who’s who of young Brits who’d devoted themselves to exploring and asking questions of the world. It was just the kind of crowd to whom I could field some burning questions I’d feel rather uncomfortable bringing up anywhere else.

What I heard in response was… surprising.

As mentioned in my last update, I’m in the UK to work on two new films based on two expeditions last year with my sometime partner-in-crime Leon McCarron. As I also mentioned, my wife Tenny and I have embarked on a new, location-independent lifestyle. While she will remain in Australia, I’m now based temporarily in London for the express purpose of knuckling down with Leon and a small team of post-production gurus and getting these two films made.

Yet spending three months in London is rather incompatible with low-budget, location-independent living.

Which presents me with something of a dilemma. (Another example of adventure versus the status quo, if you will.)

London epitomises capitalist society. There are systems in place to equate every aspect of existence with the earning and spending of money. Failure to fit in is, effectively, a punishable offence. Take housing, for example.

Were I to take my meagre earnings and attempt to house myself in London in an orthodox manner, even temporarily, I would be rejected by agents and landlords due to having no regular, dependable, provable income.

The alternative is to rent a hotel room, hostel or other such short-term accommodation, which, when we’re talking about two or three months, would end up costing a small fortune – another penalty for failing to provide a private landlord with a guaranteed long term income directly derived from my own basic human need for shelter.

If I wished to break out of the cycle of going to work in order to pay for a place to sleep so I could go to work, I would need to buy a property outright. But property is ludicrously expensive, precisely because of the profit that can be made from owning it. So I’d take out a mortgage, which would equate to paying rent until I was too old to remember what my dreams of freedom looked like.

No matter which way I look at it, my options all boil down to the same thing: putting my ability to generate money front and centre simply in order to provide for my basic needs.

This is the pattern that emerges from the culmination of the social, cultural and economic pressures present in a place like London. It is a pattern that is desperately hard to break.

There are few institutional provisions in place for anyone who chooses to ignore these pressures, whether in order to make a different, inevitably less measurable kind of contribution to society, or to opt out of society altogether. Those that do exist – social housing and other forms of state welfare – are designed to cajole the offender back into conformity, to adopt a more ‘proper’ way of life. Even the very name given to the public funds available to cover basic costs of living – “Job-Seekers’ Allowance” – has been carefully chosen to ensure that there can be no doubt as to the ultimate social obligation of its recipient.

What gets me upset – partly because I’m amongst those in the firing line – is what society sacrifices when it focuses exclusively on financial as opposed to other types of economics. We push away and repress a vast number of potential artists, dreamers, idealists and storytellers who might bring more colour and spice to our lives, without whose influence and participation in our communities and contributions to our culture we risk losing sight of what matters altogether. How many of our younger selves had their creative energies sucked out of them as we innocently trod our institutionally-imposed career paths because of the fear of what would happen if we didn’t?

For those that do resist, the surest survival strategy comes via the familiar rhetoric of buying into the same capitalistic, market-based model that sidelined them in the first place. Then there are those who’ll go all out in opposition to the system and create an anger-fuelled counterculture of resistance, creating more noise than progress.

But there seems to be no clear path for those who simply want to make a positive, creative, self-determined contribution to society without deferral (and probable submission) to the whims of the market.

To me, this state of affairs has always felt fundamentally skewed. It’s one of the main reasons I originally abandoned Britain, aged 23, with no desire to return.

Back at the party, I looked around and I saw a room full of people who had, one way or the other, broken this pattern. These were people who’d taken action. How? I wondered. Sure, this was the adventure and exploration crowd, and there would undoubtedly be a well-heeled few for whom money never had and never would be a barrier. That they’d chosen this path was commendable. But they’d be a minority. Most would have had no such starting point, and would have had to combine passion and initiative and patience to make things work.

I started talking to people, about how I was here to work on a project I believed was important, but was already feeling the pressure of existing in a financially-squeezed, highly-strung social environment.

In the most concrete terms, my primary concerns were about simply finding a way to live for three months in a city in which I quite simply could not afford to rent a place of my own. I’d put out a message on Facebook to my close friends and had received numerous kind offers of couches to sleep on. But in the longer term, my options were far from clear.

What I heard in response was inspiring.

The lengths to which the adventurous folk around me had gone (or were going) to subsist in London was impressive – often ludicrous. One high-profile adventurer (who shall not be named) claimed to have slept in more than 50 different parks in London over the years. He named some of his favourites for good measure. During his first three years in the city, he said, he’d lived rent-free, using the showers in leisure centres and no-frills gyms, working in coffee shops and libraries, and otherwise going about his days quite normally.

Another chap I spoke to said that in the summertime he spent 3 or 4 nights a week sleeping rough, despite having a full-time job and a place of his own. He just enjoyed it, he said, and it meant he had loads of time in the evenings after work to meet up with his friends all over London. Again, he had his favourite spots. (I continued taking mental notes.)

Yet another man-of-the-moment in adventure circles told me that he was, in fact, heading directly from the party to his van, which he’d parked in Putney, and in the back of which he intended to sleep that night. He too shared his tips for ‘camping’ in parked vehicles, where it was possible to find permit-free parking spots, and common pitfalls to avoid as a newcomer to four-wheeled tramping.

In fact, to my surprise, everywhere I turned I seemed to bump into someone who had done or was doing exactly as I was planning to do! That I’d finally found a crowd amongst whom being homeless was socially acceptable was an enormous surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. But I’d always assumed I was the only one in the adventure world who considered taking ‘extreme’ measures to keep doing what I was doing without selling out to the corporate world. I guess I was wrong.

One thing that didn’t come up during any of my conversations was squatting. Despite the risks and the stigma, I knew that this was an option. I knew people who’d done it, and others who were still doing it. But something about the idea didn’t seem to ring true to this group as much as stealth camping around London did. I wondered why that was.

I left the party and cycled back to where I was staying with a friend. Would it be possible to live in London and work on this project without actually having a home? I wondered. Surely I’d made camp in enough random places in the world to put those skills to use in this particular city? Would anyone notice what I was doing? Could I even learn to enjoy the challenge of pulling it off?

What’s the worst that could happen?

Ho hum. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

Do you think our ability to earn money should dictate our options in life? What would you do or create if you were entirely free from financial pressures? How would you approach living in a city like London without a home of your own?


15 responses to “On The Stigma Of Homelessness And The Dilemma Of The Creative Non-Conformist”

  1. If you’re interested in a philosophical ‘framework’ for a lot of what you are doing and talk about you should track down and read the book “The Last Night” by Federico Campagna. It’s far from perfect but an interesting read.


    1. Thanks, Ben. I’ll check that out!

  2. Mike Greer avatar
    Mike Greer

    Tom, look up Richard The Piano Tuner . He lives for the most part in and around London sleeping rough ( effectively homeless ) ! Paying his way by tuning pianos !

    1. Ah, good call! This is a really great post btw Tom, and reading it reminded me a lot of Richard. His story is incredible, and told in a beautiful film:

      1. Mike Greer avatar
        Mike Greer

        Not only is it an excellent lifestyle they are both good people . Both living or have lived on their bikes !

    2. I didn’t read very far into this post before itching to comment about richard

      . Of course somebody already beat me to it.

  3. TOM RENNIE avatar

    The solution is an old campervan. For under £5G you can get a short wheelbase Autosleeper with cooker, shower, bed. Move it around when you have to, OK it will die soon but if you just need 12-18 months it’s the answer.

  4. Mike Greer avatar
    Mike Greer

    Not sure how environmentally friendly an Auto sleeper would be !

  5. Why can’t you simply rent a room? I mean, in a shared flat, not in a hotel. Maybe not the best option but it would be cheap. At University areas shouldn’t be that difficult because of Erasmus students coming and going, so landlords/flatmates might be more flexible. That said, as a reader of your blog, I would surely enjoy a series of posts about “rough sleeping in London” 😀

    BTW, yours is a very inspiring blog, I’m starting to think about some cycling adventure this summer… so thanks!

  6. This is a huge topic and one that I’ve been gearing up to write a lot about this year. I’ve slept rough in parks in Oxford and London for weeks at a time, squatted in the basement of a hostel in London *again for weeks), lived in various vans in Cornwall and Oxford (for about a year), and slept in lived out of my car in loads of places, including for a 3 month stint working as a quite highly paid consultant in Hereford. I slept in a plastic survival bag in fields just out of town for about 3 months, and would turn up to work in a suit most mornings! Apart from the money, it’s fun and exciting and there’s something thrilling about the cheek of it!

    I’m effectively homeless right now as I try to move into Bristol, and considering the van option again.

    Keep mining this vein Tom – good stuff will come.

  7. I’m glad to read this. The only thing that I am wondering about is what you and I both have in common -what seems- is a fixed relationship and at one point you or Tenny want to have kids. How you think about that? The guy that is sleeping in parks doesn’t have any woman or kids he is taking care of, I suppose. How can you rais your kids in a responsible way and also have that financial indepence adventure freedom lifestyle? I have an answer but, you know, wondering what’s yours..

  8. Very inspirational in many ways and is great for singles or couples – not so great for families (as Henk says). I’ve been out of work (aged almost 66) for 15 months. Spent the last 7 months living with my family (wife – aged 43), son (aged almost 10) and daughter (aged 5 weeks!) in a caravan. Cheaper than a house or flat and includes all utilities except bottled gas. I don’t receive any welfare handouts at all. More comfortable and practical for a family than a bivi-bag. Major expense is running a car big enough to tow the caravan, but could opt for a permanent pitch and get a bike! At least we can go travelling in the school holidays. I’d be travelling all the time if I could as that’s mainly what I think about. But the realities of having a family make this impossible. I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in 5 countries and travelled to many more – but I still have the travel bug!!! Once the bug has bitten, it’s incurable.

  9. Vtstream avatar

    What you need is a Benefactor. Surely not everyone in London is focused on making a lot of money. Some people already have that. A Benefactor is a sponsor who will carry you along for a while because he/she thinks what you are doing is worthwhile and valuable. It may be a form of charity but the small amount of money you’d require might be a pittance for some wealthy individual who likes you and wants you to succeed. Cultivating friendships in some upper class circles might be a good investment and difficult as it may be to believe, even the wealthy are capable of being decent and generous. Artists have sought such patrons of the Arts for centuries and I see know reason why you could not convince someone to simply sponsor you since your blog is quite useful and helpful to others.

  10. Great post, Tom!

    I’m 46. I just completed a journey across the US from Portland, Maine to California (where I am now). It took 100 days. Every day was completely accounted for. I walked a thousand of the miles, and raised money from my blog to take trains and buses. It was the time of life–exciting. I slept off roadsides over 30 times in every kind of weather and environment. I met so many people and wrote up summaries of their stories.

    I COMPLETELY agree with your description of the dilemma and stigmas (social, cultural, peer pressure, etc). Very, very well said. I’m thankful that others know the same issues that I face too, especially as a creative person who is trying to leave the “game.”

    I tried to do a Kickstarter to fund my book – “Manifest Destiny: America From the Bottom Up” – but failed to get it funded. I’m now renting a small 100 sqft cabin from a friend and doing video production work for his company, while continuing to write. The plan is to raise the $5,000 or so necessary to write the book and promote it. Would be great to have the royalties to help fund future adventures. I’ve been looking into

    Please be sure that I will keep up with your adventures! Great blog. Great comments from others too. Is there an “adventure” community that has an online forum?

  11. Argh this is amazing! I feel as though I’ve arrived late to the party!
    Thank you for this post. I’ve been technically homeless since 2014, whilst working full-time, transitioning to full-time study, working on a couple startups and juggling a few jobs – and maintaining life infrastructure, of course.
    I use ‘homeless’ rather than ‘location independent’ because my lifestyle centers around a specific area. Great to read it’s possible or even advisable to live this way overseas. If I were male and theoretically less vulnerable, I’d sleep rough also.
    I live this way not only because the thought of a mortgage makes me feel ill, but because it frees me financially to pursue my dreams.
    Epic blog. Thanks, Tom!

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