'Heathrow is my home': Meet one of the 100 homeless people who live at the airport
By Sue Reid
31st May 2008
With pink lipstick and freshly brushed hair, an attractive woman queues to buy a cup of coffee at a restaurant overlooking the departure hall of Britain's biggest and busiest airport.
It is just before 7am, and the passengers ahead of her at Costa will soon be rushing to catch their flights all over the world. Yet Eram Dar has no passport and no ticket. What's more, she isn't in a hurry to go anywhere.
Eram's home is Heathrow's Terminal One. Over the past year and a half, she has lived at the airport with all her possessions in a blue canvas bag.
Today, she plans to do a bit of window shopping at the airport's stores and, perhaps, buy a bowl of pasta for lunch. She often finds a discarded newspaper and reads it to while away the day.
As night falls, she will sleep on the floor between an American Express currency exchange booth and a Wall's ice-cream vending machine on a corridor that leads to Terminal One from the underground.
She says simply and in a middle-class English accent: 'Living at Heathrow is like being in a good hotel. It is warm, very clean and you don't get bothered. I think I'm very lucky to be here.
'I sleep in the same spot every night, if another person hasn't grabbed it first. Sometimes the airport passengers peer down at me as they walk by. The night cleaners mop and brush around me. I just close my eyes and put my scarf over my head to block them all out.'
Eram is one of an astonishing number of people who, it was revealed this week, live at Heathrow. It is a scenario reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg's film, The Terminal, which starred Tom Hanks as a stateless Eastern European tourist who sets up home at New York's JFK airport after his own country is erased from the map by war.
However, what is happening at Heathrow is not the stuff of Hollywood fiction. The fact is the homeless are flocking to British airports as never before.
Over the past three months, it has been discovered that 111 people are sleeping permanently at Heathrow, and the numbers are growing - 20 homeless are believed to be living at Gatwick and more are expected.
Airports are seen as warm, comfortable havens and safer than sleeping rough. Yet charity workers say the homeless have to play a 24-hour-a-day cat-and-mouse game to avoid detection by police and airport security and being thrown out onto the streets.
Peter Mansfield-Clark, a director of the charity Crawley Open House, based near Gatwick airport, explains: 'These people take a rucksack with them with a change of clothes. They use the toilet areas to wash or shave and make themselves look tidy.
'They'll often be in travel gear, so they appear as if they're waiting to go off somewhere or have just come back. If you look the part, you've a chance of being able to sleep without anyone disturbing you.'
Some of the homeless deliberately put on floral shirts, as though they are about to fly to a holiday in the sun, to help escape suspicion.
Most also have a suitcase on wheels, which makes them fit in with the crowds. Some even pose as businessmen in suits, hiding behind newspapers if the security staff come their way, or lie on benches covered with a coat as if they are waiting for a delayed flight.
This week I spent two nights at Heathrow, after the London-based charity Broadway was brought in by the British Airport Authority to help the airport's homeless.
Howard Sinclair, chief executive of Broadway, told me: 'It's not as hard as living on the streets. That's why the homeless go there.'
One of them is Harben, a 51-year-old Indian who came to Britain 23 years ago. I met him as he was walking into the departure lounge of Terminal Two, about to settle down for the night.
He was wearing a thin cotton jacket and rain-soaked trousers. In his left hand was a white bag, containing a camel-coloured wool overcoat with a Harrods label inside. He says he found it under a bench at the airport a few weeks ago.
He lives at Heathrow by choice, and has done since his luck ran out six months ago after his marriage broke down, when he left the family home and struggled to keep his plumbing business going.
'When I found Heathrow, it was good news for me because, since my marriage broke up, I had nowhere else to go,' he says.
As darkness falls over Heathrow, and the last planes take to the skies, the airport goes quiet for the night. Harben creeps into his favourite place, behind the rows of sleeping passengers lying on benches in the Terminal Two lounge.
He lies on the floor, a few feet away from an internet cafe. He covers himself in the Harrods coat and begins to snore. But not for long.
Soon, a security man comes over and wakes him. Harben is marched to the door and pushed out into the rain.
'Now, don't come back again!' he is told brusquely. I follow him towards the central bus station, at the heart of Heathrow. There, he lies down on a wooden bench.
The bus terminal is noisy and drafty. It adjoins Terminals One, Two and Three and is always busy. Here, there are a dozen people asleep on benches. Some will be waiting for early morning buses home. Others are the homeless.
One man, with a curly mop of hair, has a big blue suitcase standing beside him as he sleeps. He keeps his hand on it, protectively. I see him on the first night, and in exactly the same position the second night.
'We call him Michael,' says a bus station official, with a shake of his head. 'He keeps all his possessions in that blue suitcase.
'You watch - at six o'clock, when the buses start arriving, he will walk off trailing the case behind him to the wash rooms. I don't know what he does during the rest of the day. But he'll be back tonight after nine.'
So what of Eram? It was during my first night at Heathrow that I found her. She was asleep, lying on the floor on a turquoise blanket and wearing a purple dress.
'She sleeps here every night,' says the male cleaner. 'Tomorrow morning, when the passengers start to come into the airport, she'll get up because of the noise of the trolleys. You'll have to wait to speak to her.'
At last Eram sits up. It is 6.30am and a passenger has just bought an ice-cream from the machine beside her head.
There is a jangle of coins, and then a thud as the carton drops down. It is enough to wake the dead.
'I couldn't help hearing that,' she tells me. Soon, she is relating the story of how she became one of Heathrow's homeless.
Eram was born into a middle-class home in Enfield, a suburb of North London. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman with an insurance broking business. Her mother was proud to be a housewife.
She had four half-sisters and a one half-brother. 'My mother was strict when I was a teenager. I wasn't happy at home because of that.
'My parents settled in Britain from Kenya before I was born. They are Asians and they didn't want me going out and learning the English ways. It meant arguments, although I understand now they only wanted the best for me.'
Eram went to a good school, St Andrew's secondary in Enfield. She passed five O-levels and studied law, intending to become a solicitor. In the end, she did not finish her training and became a legal secretary. With a good income, she moved out of home and rented her own flat.
But, then she became ill. 'I've had skin problems, psoriasis, since I was 16,' she explains. 'It flared up 20 years later and I couldn't go to work very easily. It was all over my arms and my hands.' She pulls up her sleeves to show me.
'I had problems paying the rent, and then I was evicted by the private landlord. I ran back to my flat from the court and packed my bag. I only took what I could carry.'
By now, Eram's father had died, her mother had Alzheimer's disease and she was put in sheltered council housing. The family house had been sold.
Meanwhile, her four half-sisters didn't want to help, and her elder half-brother had emigrated to Canada.
Sipping her coffee at Costa, overlooking the departures hall, she explains: 'I had no one really. One friend, called Harry, that was all. I left my big suitcase with him and moved onto the streets taking my blue bag. It took me some years to hear about Heathrow.
'I liked it here immediately. I have never felt lonely because there are so many people. I don't mix much with the other homeless, although they are of all ages and from every walk of life. I am not the only middle-class one here.
'We all recognise each other, but I just like to keep myself to myself. The airport feels quite secure. In fact, you could say that it's cheap and cheerful.'
Eram goes to the local library in Hounslow to borrow books. Somehow, she has acquired a Freedom Pass (normally available to the over-60s but also given to the homeless in London) which means she can travel anywhere in the city by bus.
Once a week, she travels to the Samaritans headquarters in central London to collect a Giro cheque of £60 in benefits. The money has to be paid there, because she has no place of abode or proper address.
'The cash goes nowhere,' she says. 'Buying food at the airport is expensive. I don't eat anything at breakfast because, if I do, it makes me feel more hungry.
'Once a week, normally when I get the Giro cheque, I splash out and buy a big meal of pasta. It keeps me going.'
Sometimes, there is a police sweep to rid the airport of the homeless. Eram has been marched out and driven away before. 'The officers left me on the Bath Road, just nearby, and I came back again,' she says with a hint of laughter.
'The builders who work overnight at the airport are very kind and don't report the homeless to the authorities. The cleaners turn a blind eye, too.
'In the mornings, when I get up, I wash and change my clothes so I don't stand out from the crowds. I look like a passenger most of the time. Sometimes, people ask me which flight I am about to catch.
'I try to make plans for the future, but that's difficult when you have next to nothing and live at an international airport. Yet most of the time I am happy.'
Is she just putting on a brave face? Eram is 42, although she looks ten years younger. She has no family, no boyfriend, almost nothing apart from the contents of the blue bag. It doesn't seem much of a life.
'I don't really see a different future,' she admits, slowly and in a quiet voice. 'I try to count my blessings. I don't take drugs, I don't drink, I don't have any mental problems. I am not down and out, yet. In fact, I could be living at Heathrow forever.'