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Some of her other stories of homelessness are just as centred on loss, but are more complex. “There’s a man in the book called Darren, who I saw the other day; it was sad to see him back, selling the Big Issue. He’s had five children and given them all up for adoption. He’s in an awful state. I first met him years and years ago. He said to me that his partner was expecting a baby, and I collected money from my meeting to buy baby clothes for him. Then, about a year later, I said: ‘How’s the baby? And he said: ‘Oh, we had to give her up.’”
She finds a quote from him in the book, which I read aloud: “My mum, she’s an alcoholic, so she just couldn’t handle looking after me and my sisters. Don’t do family. Brought myself up, can be done. I got eight sisters but I don’t see none of them, they all got adopted. They got their lives. Yeah, I’ve got five children. Same partner, together 10 years … No, not together now … It’s better. Prefer being on my own. All the children in care.” Darren, she reminds me, was a looked-after child himself.
Kavanagh is 74 and lives alone, in a mansion-block flat next to a pub two minutes’ walk from where we meet. Born and raised in London, she is a gentle, empathic presence, prone to careful pauses for thought, and answers full of nuances. Today, she is dressed in the functional clothes – solid trainers, an insulated purple jacket – of someone used to walking around the city. That reflects how she gathered the book’s raw material: hiking through the capital “nearly every day” for 15 months, either with the intention of getting into a specific story, or talking to whoever she happened to find.
Her fieldwork – which was helped by two other interviewers, who contributed additional material – ended just as the pandemic began, but Covid has only highlighted the deep social issues she portrays. “I wanted to give people evidence of all the inequalities – which until the last year, most people haven’t been very aware of,” she says. “I wanted to reveal the people behind the uniforms – people who are mostly invisible to passersby, who do everything – security guards, people polishing the brass outside the pub, street cleaners.
“And homelessness was always at the centre of it, because I just feel so passionately about it. I used to get so angry, and think: ‘How can we just take it for granted that we have people on the streets?’ We didn’t have when I was growing up. I can’t stand it. To me, it’s just unbearable.”
Most people, I suggest, are at least partly desensitised to it. We all know the awful reality of homelessness, but most of the time, when we see someone sleeping rough, we don’t feel the kind of moral pang we ought to.