Most of us think of the airport as a temporary rest spot on the way to our destination. But for many, the airport is the destination; in fact, it’s home.
Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film The Terminal features Tom Hanks playing Viktor Navorski, a man who lives at JFK for over a year when his home country breaks into civil war during his New York-bound flight. The film is loosely inspired by the 17-year stay of an Iranian refugee named Mehran Karimi Nasseri at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
Nasseri is only one of many “residents” found to be living in airport terminals across the world. Between 30 and 42 people are sleeping at the Madrid-Barajas Airport at any given time, while JFK and Heathrow house over 100 airport residents annually. A woman named Bettina has been living in Mallorca’s Palma Airport for 10 years. Another man stayed at Gatwick Airport for three years before making headlines in 2008 when he was banned from the property. A Go Fund Me campaign raised almost $14,000 for an elderly couple living at Heathrow after losing their home this winter.
Most airport residents are not political refugees like Nasseri, who was eventually relocated to Paris’s 20th arrondissement. “It’s mainly homeless people coming in from the city on the night bus, attracted by the shelter, warmth, shops, showers, toilets,” says Mike Nicholas, communications manager for Thames Reach, a London organization for the homeless that is commissioned by Heathrow to transfer airport residents into more permanent housing. Karen Mwaniki, an senior project worker at the West London Mission, says that it’s relatively easy for the homeless to blend in at airports, as most already carry their possessions in backpacks and therefore look like travelers.
Nicholas says he and his team find between 15 to 35 people a night sleeping at Heathrow, but that they are short-term residents. “We think there’s only four people actually living there full-time,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport considered building a homeless shelter on site. But for now, most airport authorities partner with local organizations for the homeless, like Thames Reach, to assist their homeless residents.
The next time you fly to Tokyo…
…look for the farmhouse sitting smack in the middle of Narita Airport’s second runway. When the Japanese government began construction on the airport in 1966, many defiant farmers refused to give up their land. Several farms, two private homes and a Shinto shrine remain within airport premises to this day.