It Could Be You

22nd April 2016

Do you turn away when you pass a street sleeper, or do you think ‘There but for the grace of God…’? The distressing reality is that homelessness can be caused by a myriad of reasons, from relationship break-ups to sudden redundancy. As Alex Gray reports, sadly no-one is immune...

When you hear the word homeless, what’s the first image that springs to mind? I’d hazard a bet that most of us will picture someone sleeping rough on bits of cardboard under a dirty sleeping bag. We might also assume that they are heavily dependent on drugs and/or drink, and some of us will go so far as to say that they’ve got no one but themselves to blame.

But sleeping rough is only the tip of the homelessness iceberg. For every one rough sleeper there are 100 in hostels and 1,100 in overcrowded accommodation. While it may be true that a proportion of those people will be suffering substance abuse issues, the only thing that they all have in common is a total lack of somewhere secure to stay. The majority of homeless are invisible – ‘sofa surfing’ (sleeping on friends’ sofas) and in hostels.

Trinity is an organisation that, in 2009, launched its Big Sleepout campaign, to raise funds for its work. This year, over 1,000 people joined in, spending the evening being entertained by Shane Ritchie, before bedding down for the night out in the cold and raising money for charity in the process. It all sounds very sociable, so what was the point? Aside from the obvious fundraising, this year the charity’s main call to action hinged around the hashtag #itcouldbeme.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone,” says Emma Cantrell, Communications Manager. “We’re passionate about the fact that homelessness is a community problem, so really [the Big Sleepout] came out of that, of wanting to make people aware, of that re-education it could be anyone. Approximately half a million people are hidden homeless – sofa surfing, in insecure housing, it’s really just a part of our ambition to make people understand that no one is immune to it.”

Trinity’s point is that by experiencing one night, with the comfort of a warm home, a decent meal and a proper bed to go back to, people are somehow galvanised into more action. “The feedback we get is that it changes people’s perspectives… the first year I did it I was overwhelmed. I didn’t get much sleep my sleeping bag was damp, but I knew I was going home and I could put it on the radiator. Suddenly you realise that you never have to think about where to go to get warm. It was incredibly humbling spending one night sleeping rough; you will never look at homeless people the same way again. You get a feeling of how isolating and lonely it must be not to have somewhere to go. People’s attitudes change.”

Trinity helps 50 people a day and provides 30,000 meals a year through its 125-bed facility in Hillingdon and day service in Slough, and its service users come from all walks of life. “You get young people who have fallen out with family members or out of care… people in their 70s who for whatever reason have become homeless… very well off business men in their 50s who have divorced and lost homes, and through the emotional turmoil they have also lost their job; suddenly they find themselves destitute. There is no one type of person.”

Relationship breakdown is the number one cause of homelessness. A couple of years ago, the homeless charity St Mungo’s, which works across London and the south of England, took to the streets to record the stories of those sleeping rough. This is what some of them said: “I’ve been on and off the streets since the age of 14. I left home of my own accord because of family problems. Unless you had a bottle of spirits my mum didn’t want to know, and my dad didn’t want to know,” said one. Another explains how, even when there is a home to go to, challenging family relationships make it impossible to stay there: “When I came back to Reading I stayed with my father for a while but we’re like chalk and cheese. We’re okay, but living under the same roof it doesn’t work. We had periods where we’d fall out, We didn’t talk so I was forced to use the drop-in centre. So things didn’t work out so I started sleeping out.” In this case, a marital breakdown was the cause: “They did surgery on both legs [...] it was very, very painful. I struggled financially afterwards, I told [my wife] things were going to be rough financially for a couple of months and she was having none of it, took my keys off me, and my spare keys and – out.”

The number two reason for homelessness is eviction. Alarmingly, according to the homeless organisation Shelter, 4.4m people wouldn’t be able to pay their rent or mortgage at all if they lost their job and couldn’t find another one straight away. And that’s something that would put them on a direct path to eviction. “There isn’t a ‘type’ of person that’s affected by bad housing and homelessness. It can happen to any of us,” says Shelter. A recent film, made by young filmmaker Daisy-May Hudson, is a case in point. Evicted from their property where they had lived for 13 years as a result of the landlord putting it up for sale, she and her mother ended up living in a homeless hostel for a year. Both were working, yet they could not afford rent on another property. Feeling frustrated and powerless about their situation, Daisy-May, now 24 and a successful film producer, recorded 250 hours of footage that she turned into a documentary called Halfway. She is recognised as a ‘breakthrough Brit’ by Bafta: “I want people to see it so people can actually understand the housing crisis from a human perspective,” says Daisy. The family slept in one room and ate from a shared kitchen. “I felt like I’d let both of you down,” says her mother in the film. “The thing that worries me most is being in this system, there are no time limits and having no one on our side.”

Shelter estimates that this year, 100,000 children will wake up on Christmas Day without a home. Andrea, a teacher from London, writes movingly for their latest campaign highlighting the issue, about how she no longer assumes that her pupils have a bed to sleep in. “Thankfully these children aren’t on the streets, but living in temporary accommodation means they don’t have a stable, safe place to call home. When you feel so insecure in where you live, it impacts on your relationships and on how you relate to other people. It not only makes children feel desperately sad, it affects their self-esteem so much that it’s a huge barrier to them reaching their potential.”

So what can be done? “We would like to see more support in preventing people ending up homeless in the first place,” says Stephen Holland, Communications Officer at Homelesslink, an umbrella organisation that represents 500 homeless organisations, large and small, across England. “The principle of priority need (the way in which councils asses those that need a home) is fairly good, but we would like to see more support to prevent people from ending up in a situation at all where they have to go to their council: stronger rights for tenants to help them maintain their tenancies and more affordable homes, for instance. If they’re not found to be in priority need that’s when the charities come in.”

“I thought I could sort this one,” says Daisy-May’s mother, as her daughter films her in the tiny hostel room, “but it’s not going to happen. I work word hard and I provide, and here we are.”

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