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. – dm