I have never been homeless, although I have worked with homeless people for some time, both in my professional life as a solicitor specialising in housing, and also as a volunteer, initially with Crisis at Christmas, and more recently with Haven.
In order to help make people aware of the problems faced by homeless people, I interviewed two homeless men, who have both kindly agreed that I can share their stories – they have also agreed that I can use their real names. Their stories are typical of the stories we hear from the people who use our services.
Thomas is a 36 year old Polish man. He arrived in the UK on a work permit in 2003, a year before Poland joined the EU. He is a quietly spoken man, intelligent and articulate.
He has been here ever since. Initially, he lived with his sister and her family in a privately rented house inBrighton. He lived with his sister and her family for six and a half years, and was working for the whole time. He lost his job, and the family were not able to stay in the house and so he became homeless. He has been homeless for three and a half years now, although he was working for most of that time.
When he was first homeless he lived in a shed in Haywards Heath, along with some friends. He has been in Harlow for two years now, he lives in a tent, which is pitched in theTownPark. He told me that one day he returned to where his tent was pitched and found that the Council had taken his tents and all of his possessions, he believes that this is because of complaints from people who see homeless people as a threat. He is not bitter about the loss of his tent, rather he takes the view that it is illegal to sleep there – but as he pointed out, what choice does he have. He now has another tent, which was difficult to afford.
He has been employed for most of the time he has been homeless, but his last job was a temporary contract, which was not renewed after it expired. Soon after losing his job, he had an accident and badly fractured his leg, he told me that he has eight pins in it; he is still using crutches and has a plaster cast on his leg. He expects to be able to go back to work in about six months, in the meantime, he has to rely on benefits, although he told me that he was waiting for a call from the DWP, who still have not started paying the full amount.. This means that he is relying on Crisis Loans, he said he is living on £30 a week at present.
I asked Thomas for his views on what was most difficult about being homeless – he said that money is always a problem, it is hard to get a job if you do not have an address, and that he knows of other homeless people who have been unable to get bank accounts to have their benefits paid into. He said that being homeless is expensive – he has to shop daily as he cannot store fresh meat and milk without a fridge, he told me that when the weather is nice he and his friends cook on a barbeque. They also go to the supermarkets on Sunday afternoons, when they are selling food cheaply.
Thomas has approached Harlow Council for assistance, and has been told that they cannot assist him. I advised him on this. He is hoping that he may be able to get a room, once his benefits have been sorted out.
Dominic is 26 and from Suffolk. He told me that he has had several experiences of being homeless. He works in Harlowin a shop.
He initially became homeless at 19, when his mother asked him to leave the family home because they were not getting along. He went to the council in the rural area where he grew up, but was told that they had nothing available, he was able to stay with friends for four months, until the council finally arranged accommodation for him.
He stayed there for around a year, until, in his words he ‘screwed up big time’ and was evicted due to a problem with alcohol, he said that he does not drink much now and has never taken drugs. He was offered some help to combat his alcohol problem but says that eventually he managed to beat it by himself. Following his eviction, he sofa surfed (stayed with various friends, sleeping on their couches, but never really settling) for the next two months.
He was then placed in a hostel, where he stayed for the next eighteen months. While he was there, he met a young woman and they started a relationship. Eventually they became engaged, and he moved in with her at her parents’ home. He was there for some time, but the relationship eventually broke down. He felt that he had no choice but to leave. He has now been homeless for three weeks. He said that some nights he was able to sleep at friend’s houses, and sometimes he slept rough.
He was very tired, and somewhat dishevelled when I met him. He told me that he slept in a bin cupboard last night, and that he didn’t think he would ever have come to that. I thought he was going to cry – I thought I was too. He told me that he really believed that he had turned his life around, but now he is not so sure. The Council have told him that they cannot help him because he is not in priority need.
He said that people look down on homeless people, perhaps because they are not able to keep themselves as well groomed as people with homes, not because they are dirty, but because they don’t generally have access to a bath, or a wardrobe, or a washing machine.
(His comments reminded me of an interview with a homeless client some years ago – he said that people think that homeless people are dirty, but they don’t generally have somewhere to cook food, so live primarily on sandwiches and fast food, which can be expensive, he said that launderettes are expensive too, when living on benefits, and a choice often has to be made between food and laundry. This particular client, who is HIV+ and is an amputee, told me that he was beaten by a group of drunken youths whilst sleeping in a street doorway in London. He showed me a long scar on his arm where they had cut him with a bottle, he said that he just lay there as there were so many of them that he was afraid that they would kill him. They then urinated on him; he said that they were laughing as they did it. He told me that when he went to the launderette to get his clothes washed, they threw him out because he smelled of urine. I recall that when I asked him what the police had done about it, he said he had not reported it, “because nobody cares about homeless people”).