An Imperial student has reached out to homeless man Mark Burns, 43, by publishing his book reviews online. Mark lives in a tent in the alleyway behind a tube stop, and reads and reviews books given to him by passing commuters.
However it seems that he may not be able to retain his regular reading spot behind Parsons Green station, as police have warned him he must move on or face jail time.
Farah Shair, a second year biochemist who lives near the Parsons Green station, maintains “The Homeless Book Critic” blog, and takes reviews from Mark to post online.
She also types up diary entries and has shed some light on Mark’s past, telling his story of how he has ended up on the streets.
Farah told Felix: “I noticed Mark sitting behind the station reading on my way to university, and thought it was interesting how he always had a book in his hand.
I started talking to him and he is really nice, and I thought it would be a great way to help him out by publishing his reviews online.”
However Mark was arrested on Tuesday night for allegedly blocking the public walkway, and spent the night in a cell. His books were taken away and have not been returned to him, and he was left without his tent and sleeping bag overnight before they were returned to him the following morning.
The alleyway is property of TfL, and although those who work at the station have told police he is welcome to stay, residents of the properties overlooking the alleyway are not so happy about Mark setting up camp there.
A BBC report covering Mark featured an interview with Audrey, who was scared Mark would climb over into the garden: “I don’t think anyone would be happy with someone at their back door… It’s very insecure.”
Some of the residents have been repeatedly reporting Mark to the police as a result, often accusing him of anti-social behaviour.
However, Mark said to the BBC: “I think it’s a joke considering I don’t do nothing wrong. I sit here and I read a book I don’t give anyone any grief and I make sure I keep the alleyway clean.”
He also told the Big Issue in an interview published this week: “I think a certain neighbour was saying I’m causing problems, but everyone round here knows I’m not doing that.
I collect up all my stuff and don’t leave any rubbish. When the police took me away they asked if those were my books. I said, ‘Well, no – they’re for everyone.’ So I suppose they didn’t consider them my belongings.”
Mark has been told now that if he stays in the alleyway longer than four hours, he will be arrested.
A quiet demonstration, featuring several students and friends of Farah, took place on Wednesday after Mark was told to move to show support for Mark. Their peaceful protest also made it onto the BBC news, and even attracted support from local celebrity Jamie Lang, a star from the reality television program Made In Chelsea.
Jamie told the BBC: “If he’s not harassing the local community - which Mark wasn’t at all - then why kick him out if he’s not abusing anyone? There’s just no need for it.”
Mark is still in the area, but, without a spot to make camp, he also doesn’t have a spot to keep his books. Farah hosts a Facebook page for Mark, and posted to see if anyone in the area knows of a secure location he can set up a new library.
The page has nearly 900 likes and is inundated with comments showing support for Mark. One poster recently commented: “Mark is one of the nicest people I’ve met in Parsons Green! I’m a local resident and really enjoy chatting with him.
“The builders who gather there are the real problem; urinating and drinking etc. One time, a terrible fight broke out and I felt so scared as they were all huge men, very drunk and I got stuck trying to walk past them.
“Thankfully, Mark was quietly reading and I knew if something terrible had happened he’d have helped me.”
Farah now plans to raise enough money to buy Mark a van, in which he can live, read and hopefully sell books from in the future. Mark also hopes to use the van to travel to other areas of London to provide vital support for those that are also sleeping rough by talking to them, encouraging them to read and highlighting the problems of being homeless.
Mark, who was born in Hammersmith, has been homeless for three years. After spending some time in Chiswick, he settled into the alleyway behind Parsons Green and has been happily camping and reading there for nearly a year.
Farah concluded: “Some people have asked me why I am only helping one homeless person, and say “ “Well, there are lots of homeless people in London, why are you not helping those too?”
“Obviously I am aware there are lots of homeless people in the city, but I am only one person and can only do so much.
“Hopefully by sharing Mark’s reviews and presenting maybe this other side to him that people may not see, I can challenge preconceptions people may have about the homeless and raise awareness of the problems a lot of homeless people face.”
Want to contribute or know more? Visit Mark’s Facebook page (The Homeless Book Critic) for the blog.