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Royalty and Rough-sleepers: South Kensington is More than it Seems

Sue sat between the cash machine and the steps exiting Tesco Express grocery store by the Gloucester Road Tube station, pale hair shorn and eyes laced with blood-red around the edges. Her hands smoothed erratically over the damp fur of the dog lying at her feet; around her neck hung a small, silver cross.

She said she wore it not because she belonged to God, but because it belonged to her husband.

“If there were a God,” she said, distant eyes twitching away from me, “he wouldn’t have taken my husband too early.”

When he died, Sue became homeless. Now she lives with Petie, her subdued, straw-colored dog, on the streets of South Kensington. She said most homeless shelters in the area don’t allow pets, and for those that do, she has to pay.

If she makes fifteen pounds during the day by panhandling, she can buy one night for her and Petie in the shelter. If she doesn’t make fifteen pounds, she sleeps in a deserted fire escape in a nearby back alley.

A couple streets away, I rest in my bed in the most expensive neighborhood in London.

When I tell anyone here I live in South Kensington, they inevitably respond with widened eyes, raised brows, and a knowing “ahhh” – because everyone knows that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has the highest concentration of pound notes in the whole of the United Kingdom.

The area boasts colossal monuments to the Victorian era – when Great Britain ruled 25 percent of the world and liked to show off that fact – the mammoth Natural History Museum, ornate Royal Albert Hall, stunning Victoria and Albert Memorial, and the statuesque V&A Museum.

Beyond the wrought iron red of Queen’s Gate ten minutes walk away is the vast green of Hyde Park, and in its center is Kensington Palace, home to generations of royals. In just a few weeks (or so the tabloids say), two future kings and the most important woman in their lives will move into it.

That’s right: William, Kate, and baby George will become my neighbors a fifteen-minute walk away.

On the surrounding streets, identical white row houses stand at attention like statuesque servants, columns straight and gates secure. Sharing space with the carved door-knockers are French patisseries, up-scale restaurants, and selective bookshops.

But Kensington, and the people in it, are more than just pounds and posh pretension. For the borough is a paradox: of students and centenarians, foreigners and natives, white and blue-collar workers, royalty and rough-sleepers.

Every day, I see dapper businessmen bustle with clicking heels past workmen in dirtied orange vests, coarse accents calling back and forth to one another as they stop for a smoke.

Embassies from Thailand, Qatar, and Iraq salute with their respective flags as tourists from their countries, heads buried in maps and cameras clicking, look the wrong way when they cross the street.

Wiry East Asian women rush along the pavement pushing prams with blonde-haired babies past ex-pat European mothers ushering their children into sleek cars.

French teenagers with slicked hair and smoldering cigarettes stand on the wall outside their school as giggling English schoolgirls play on a thin strip of concrete outside theirs.

And loud posses of American students, clutching Sainsbury’s bags and Oyster cards, rush past Sue, sitting outside the Tube station.

I share the streets of South Kensington with people who are more contradictory and complex than the characters in which I cast them. For no person, and no place for that matter, should be pigeonholed.

Kensington may be the wealthiest borough in the United Kingdom, but to say that’s the whole picture is to ignore reality. To overlook need. To pretend as though Sue does not exist.

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