WE have all seen them: dirty, poorly clad figures crumpled in doorways, undeniably human yet, at the same time, a species apart.
Chris Kitch was one of those vacant-eyed heaps of rags and bags. She shuffled from littered sidewalks to public toilets to back alleys, invariably high on alcohol and one of the many drug "hits" she used to get her through the day.
From her late teens, and for the next 32 years, she lived in the nether world of the homeless drug addict and alcoholic - where rummaging through dustbins is a prime occupation, rapes are commonplace, and bottles are smashed on heads to settle inconsequential scores. Her main patch was the heart of London's tourist district, Piccadilly Circus.
According to a longtime London probation officer, few people make it out of such an existence alive. Of those that do, hardly any emerge coherent enough to talk about it.
Incredibly, Ms. Kitch did. And she has even gone one better. With street life now eight years behind her, she has recently received a BA (with honors) in English literature and women's studies from North London University, and is currently embarking on an MA degree at Oxford Brookes University. She is determined not to quit until she achieves the title of, as she puts it, "Dr. Chris."
"I want to develop to the point of brilliance," she says, with child-like enthusiasm, "if it's possible."
"Chris has seen another world and clawed her way out of that pit in an incredibly courageous and creative way, which is very rare," says Wendy Wheeler, one of Kitch's former professors at North London University. "Anybody who has been through a very shocking experience such as hers and then finds a language in which he or she can speak the unspeakable has certainly got a lot to offer to other human beings. And it is her tremendous determination to do so that is carrying her through."
Meeting Kitch at Oxford's Anglican All Saints Convent where she works alternately in the kitchen and laundry to help pay for her education, she displays a curious blend of her old and new lifestyles. A diminutive, wiry figure, there is, in contrast, nothing petite about her. Sleeves pushed up, her strong, heavily scarred and tattooed bare arms look menacing. The close-cropped hair, weathered face, and beefy hands add to that picture. Yet she is, these days, sensitive about her appearance and the impression she makes. Indeed, reliving events of her past during the interview, she said afterward, was extremely trying: The shame is still hard to bear.
"To live the way I did is about craziness," explains Kitch. "In fact, one of the ways of surviving on the streets is to go crazy.... Craziness, in some ways, protects you: You dare not feel. It's just too painful."
Born to an unmarried mother in 1938, Kitch grew up in the slums of Bradford, a northern British mill town. Her mother was a domestic servant, who later married Kitch's stepfather, a laborer, purely to give her daughter a name. She was repeatedly called an "ugly, ungrateful bastard" by neighbors and parents alike. Her stepfather beat her regularly, she says.
There was one fleeting moment of distinction. An avid reader with a deep desire to become a "scholar," Kitch, at 14, surprised everyone by gaining entrance, after passing some difficult exams, to the top local school. She was to be the first pupil from a socially deprived background to attend there.
But the class chasm of the time proved unbridgeable. An accumulation of gaffes and embarrassing incidents convinced the teachers that the "social experiment" was not working. Kitch was eventually asked to leave.
While going through a series of menial jobs, Kitch started hanging out with a hard crowd in town and was soon drinking heavily and taking drugs.
From here, her story becomes fragmented. Living on the streets; three children; deemed an unfit mother; each child taken away; shoplifting; prison; in hospitals; and back on the streets.
Did she have friends? Conversations?
Kitch rolls her eyes upward, chuckles, and shakes her head: "Stoned voices talking ... empty, meaningless words ... looking into stoned eyes." After more than three decades of this, she continues, a basic practical difficulty in "rejoining the human race" is a normal exchange of pleasantries. "I'm still learning how to converse. It's a skill, isn't it?"
She remembers children taunting her. She stank. She was filthy. "I was a mad woman, staggering around, and the ridicule was unbearable," she says with feeling.
One incident proved a turning point. Asleep in a doorway, she awakened to what seemed to be a spray of rain on her face. It wasn't rain. Opening her eyes, she saw a policeman. She was paralyzed with shame at the disdain on his face as he stood over her. Kitch neither moved nor spoke as he turned away with a smirk and walked into the night.
"Is this what I have become?" she said to herself. "People even [urinate] on me now, and it doesn't matter?"
Although not a religious person at the time ("Well, like everybody on the streets I used to pray to St. Jude for a 'hit,' " she says, and suddenly laughs heartily) Kitch, in abject desperation, prayed in earnest. She didn't know what else to do. "Where do you go when there's nowhere to go?" she says. "That's why I prayed. And not to St. Jude, but to God. I knew that I couldn't take any more. I just said, 'What do I do? Please help me.' "
Within 24 hours, and for the first time in more than three decades, she was taking the first moves toward radically altering her life. The unequivocal answer she got from that prayer, she says, was to stop the drugs. Not easy. But at least she knew what she had to do. She found a rehabilitation center and was admitted. Her path to recovery was far from straight. On one occasion, she got drunk and robbed the place of 200 ($300), out of resentment over some fellow patients who kept a healthy distance from her. "I didn't know how to deal with resentment," she says. Her condition was so entrenched and extreme that no one expected her to be rehabilitated.
Because of her decades on the streets, there were many things, particularly to do with emotions, that Kitch didn't understand. She had to be told, for example, to smile at people, something that had never occurred to her before. Frequently feeling confused and like a failure, she would return to her old life.
Following her umpteenth arrest, this time for shoplifting, a probation officer pointed out, "The drugs might not kill you, Chris, but the shame - the degradation - will: You are destroying yourself with behavior that degrades you in your own eyes."
That reached her as no words from a social worker ever had. She was now fully ready for treatment.
With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and, most of all, a new-found spirituality (she was baptized in the Anglican faith three years ago), Kitch has managed not to drink or take drugs since 1987. With the aid of a counselor, she learned that the key to everything is to try to feel good about yourself: If, for instance, you do something wrong, make amends. Kitch immediately took a cleaning job to repay the rehab center she had robbed.
She also began to dream of continuing where she had left off so many years ago - becoming a scholar. The counselor encouraged her to take courses. It snowballed from there.
Once she has earned her doctorate, Kitch plans to do whatever she can to provide guidance for women in need. While her two jobs at the convent cut heavily into her study time and yield only enough money to subsist on, she is determined to achieve her goal. "I know that I have a lot to give," she says, "and I want to learn how to give it."
Although now well into middle age, Kitch is convinced that her productive life has only just begun. She works out with weights, plays table tennis competitively for the Oxford Table Tennis League, eats and bathes regularly, has learned to sleep in a bed - but, after decades of living on the street, still cannot abide carpets in her apartment. They had to come out.
When she sees people slumped in doorways these days, does she give them money?
"Sometimes," she replies, "but not often, because I don't want to enable them, out of my guilt, to stay in doorways. Am I really helping them, or am I just helping my guilt? I hurt when I see them. But I'm powerless to help. You give people in doorways money, and they are not going to come out of doorways."