‘One moment I’m driving a Range Rover – the next I’m living on the floor under a footbridge’

By Staff

From his hospital bed, Konstantin saw visitors fawning over the rich man beside him. Then, as the man was gripped by death, the bedside guests vanished. Slouched between piles of urine soaked lager cans under an A-road footbridge, Kos tells me this parable. “Trust no-one,” he tells me. Destitute for three months, all he can think about are the people who have stopped caring about him.

When Kos was jilted by his girlfriend, for a man with more money, the young Latvian left his native city of Daugavpils for London, and found an advert on UK4RU, the Russian equivalent of Craigslist. The advertiser, Sajid*, became his ‘piece of sh*t’ landlord, giving him a room near Wood Street station, in Walthamstow, and regular work on construction sites around London.

For the first seven weeks, Kos worked without a day off. Then he worked for six years, earning £10 an hour cash in hand, living in a double bedroom next-door to an ex Latvian Special Forces soldier. Kos says the flatmate stole from him, but, looking back, these were happier times. He lived without tax, he didn’t think about saving, and he could afford to send money home to his parents.

READ MORE: ‘Armed police smashed our café looking for hostages – we did nothing wrong but it’s ruined our reputation’

Then last year, Kos took Sajid’s Range Rover out on an errand. Three times over the drink driving limit, with no MOT or insurance, he was stopped by police and arrested. When Kos blamed his boss, it cost him his home. On December 15 last year, Kos was evicted and became jobless overnight. “He left you out there?” I ask. “Yeah, just like this,” Kos says.

After six years of tax evasion, Kos was refused Universal Credit. The result has been a winter hiding behind a concrete pillar, waiting for the outcome of a criminal background check that will allow him to find work. For the last three months, he’s been holding on to, what he calls, ‘my respect’, and trying not to die.

‘Risk of fatal harm’

In March 2023, a 69-year-old man called Sydney Piper was found dead in a tent near the Waterworks Roundabout, close to where Kos sleeps. Sydney had been missing for a month when police found him. The pensioner died of morphine toxicity, but his death led Coroner Graeme Irvine to highlight the full range of mortal dangers for homeless people in this part of Waltham Forest.

In a prevention of future deaths report, addressed to the Met Police and Waltham Forest Council, Mr Irvine said Sydney’s overdose was the latest in a series of homeless deaths in tents and camps in wooded areas on the A406 and edge of Epping Forest due to ‘high risk behaviours’ like ‘crush injuries, fire, third party assaults and drug misuse’.

In 2015, police and homeless charity Thames Reach made a point of highlighting the issue by releasing photos of a camp under an A406 overpass in Chingford. They showed four tents, four mattresses, and a wooden shack, just like the one Ionut Manea lived in.

Ionut was roasted alive inside a makeshift wooden hut near Ilford in 2019. His attackers doused the camp in petrol and set it on fire while the 38-year-old was asleep, apparently because of a disagreement over who could live there. Ionut died with 100 per cent burns and another man was badly disfigured.

With Sydney and, most likely, Ionut’s death in mind, Mr Irvine concluded there could be more deaths if the police and the council fail to take any action. “The monitoring and policing of such encampments is, in the view of the court, lacking which increases the risk of fatal harm,” he said.

‘You can’t lose your respect’

When MyLondon went to look for these forgotten people, hiding on the edge of one of London’s busiest roads, one dog walker told us he can smell deodorant as homeless men get ready for work in the morning. Other locals directed us to an empty red tent, recently pitched and abandoned on a circular patch of grass near Woodford New Road.

Then one walker told us to speak to the man sleeping under a footbridge that goes over the A503. Here we find Kos, asleep face down on a doubled-up sheet of grey foam, his face covered in a thin duvet with thick and dirtied socks exposed.

I wake Kos up and he’s suspicious. I hand him my phone and ask if he knew Sydney. He doesn’t. I tell him we are here to speak to people living in tents on the edge of the road after a coroner said they were at risk of dying.

“How you find me?” Kos asks. “We looked,” I tell him. He laughs and tells me “I know so many people and I don’t want them to know I’m here. You know what I mean by respect… You can’t lose your respect like that. One day you’re driving, the next day you’re sleeping on the floor. How can it be like that?”

The conversation gets spiky, and Kos gets agitated by my questions. At times he tells me to stop writing and I can’t tell if he’s ribbing me. I carry on writing and nothing happens. I think Kos is trying to assert some control. He picks up on my silences, accuses me of looking at him like ‘a piece of sh*t’, questions our motives, and asks if we get paid.

At one point he asks if I know Wood Street. “Yes,” I say. Then he asks if I know a certain shop on Wood Street. “No,” I say. “So you don’t know Wood Street then, do you,” Kos says.

Kos is tired of people who speak without certainty. “They not help, they just talking,” he tells me later, cussing the outreach workers who, he says, have told him there’s nothing available to him.

Kos says he’s seen around 10 different people living in the area since he moved to his spot under the footbridge. When another man asked to sleep near him, Kos says he threw his arms out and said ‘Why you ask me? I say you can go anywhere’. Now the man sleeps behind the concrete pillar across the street.

For food, Kos tells me he walks two hours to a Gurdwara in Ilford. He collects a vegetarian curry. Then he walks two hours home. On one of those walks, Kos collapsed in the cold. He spent two weeks at Whipps Cross Hospital, next to a man who died. But not Kos, who was discharged back to his bed under the bridge.

Kos says if they can survive the harshest night, the homeless queue at Wood Street library for 9am, desperate for the free warmth. This is where Kos can charge his phone, use the computer, and wash. It’s also here, shaving in the library toilet, that Kos looks in the mirror at his weathered face, scabby with black creases. “It’s not me,” he says. “I’m 36. Look like? I think I look like I’m 46.”

When I ask how he feels living like this, Kos gets riled. He asks me if I’m joking, and then calls me something in Latvian. “I have to ask the question,” I say. “Better you ask me another question,” Kos says.

Later though, when he’s ready, he answers the question by calling out men who think they can empathise with child birth. He adds: “It’s very hard. You don’t understand this. You know when they say ‘I understand you, I understand you’. You no understand. A lady birth kids. Never you understand how it’s hard.”

“That’s why, you change me and you, you never understand,” he says, he pointing at his cardboard. “Three months… three months” he says.

“Does your mum know you’re sleeping like this?” I ask. “Yes” Kos says. “What does she say?” I ask. “She’s crying,” he says.

For the first time, his eyes begin to wet but nothing comes out. “Did she tell you to come home?” I ask. “Again, explain me, how can I go home without money,” Kos says. I think about what Kos said earlier: ‘I don’t want them to know me I’m here’.

“In my country, homeless means something very bad. It means you’re a piece of shit,” Kos says.

Later I ask Kos about his dad. Kos tells me his dad died of a heart attack, aged 56. “Do you worry your own heart could just stop?” I ask. Kos pauses, then answers another question.

“What is it called? Mental Health,” he says. “It’s finished”. He demands a stare. “Look at you. Look at me,” he says. “You know, when you feel nobody can help you. That’s it.”

After losing his life in the fallout of a criminal conviction, it seems ironic the only life-line for Kos is the criminal justice system. If he can pass a criminal check, Kos says his probation worker has promised him housing and work for £45-a-day.

Waiting for the call, Kos sleeps under the bridge and keeps his phone charged, hoping the spring will bring warmth, and a way out. If he can’t get that, he’s convinced he will die alone.

‘Ending rough sleeping’

In response to the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report, a Waltham Forest Council spokesperson said: “We are sorry for this sad loss and wish to offer our condolences to Sydney’s family and friends. We would encourage anyone who is concerned for the welfare of people they see sleeping rough within the borough to contact us via our StreetLink portal (https://thestreetlink.org.uk/).

“Our outreach officers will then try to contact them and offer help to find accommodation and the right support, if that is what they want. It is part of the council’s commitment to ending rough sleeping in the borough.”

*Some names have been changed.

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