Back in April I spent 25 hours homeless on the streets of Bournemouth, to get an idea of what it’s like for the increasing amount of people who seemed to be doing it. I’ve now raised my hours to 125, to get a slightly better idea of what it’s like for the still increasing amount of people who seem to be doing it.
Here are a few things I learnt:
Only a minority of the rough sleeping community beg
Until now, if I were to draw a picture of a rough sleeper, they would be sitting on a pavement, looking worn-down and unclean, politely asking passers-by for change. What I’ve learnt from sleeping rough myself for 100 hours, however, is that my drawing would be of only a small minority of the rough sleeping community.
The typical answer I got from asking what the hardest thing is about being homeless, was simply “surviving”. You might have thought then, that I’d have to do some begging – at least for food? I was told from the start that this wouldn’t be the case. I was even told I might be better fed than I would usually, and that all I’d have to bring with me is the clothes I was wearing.
The reality is that, in Bournemouth at least, the voluntary services are superb. Each night of the week there is a soup kitchen in one of the churches providing soup with bread, a hot meal, a sandwich, some fruit, and a selection from Greggs bakery. Everything is made by the volunteers or donated. Then for breakfast, there is the BH1 Project, run by the Salvation Army in Boscombe, where you can get a tea or coffee, some toast and some cereal, everyday. Lunch isn’t quite as consistent, but on Tuesdays and Fridays one of the churches cooks a roast dinner using chickens from Nandos which are about to go out of date. At all of these services, there are donated clothes and sleeping bags. So there is no need to beg for food or clothes in Bournemouth, and most of the homeless community don’t. Most are angry at those who do, and are immensely grateful for the voluntary services that exist.
Addiction is rife, but it’s no surprise
So if there are enough food and clothes, what does anyone need to beg for? For years I have not given money to anyone on the streets asking for it, opting instead to ask whether there is anything specific I can buy for them (and getting a fantastic range of responses). The reason I do this is because of my reluctant suspicion that any money I give might be spent on drugs and alcohol…and unfortunately, this is often the case.
I have seen it myself, and been definitely warned by a majority of the homeless community, that beggars aren’t always actually homeless, and will often spend the change you give them on feeding their drug/alcohol addictions. The fact that a lot of the people I see begging rarely make appearances at any of the voluntary services listed previously supports these claims. But I am still not as stern to condemn begging as much of the homeless community are, and here is why:
Firstly, unlike some of my friends on the streets, I have not been raped by my uncle as a child and then not been believed about it for seven years until getting bust for doing it to someone else; I have not been disowned by my mum at the age of 15; I have not been beaten up by my dad; both my parents are still alive, together, and aren’t alcoholics; I don’t have any crippling disabilities; I haven’t fought in a war; I don’t suffer from PTSD, and taking all these things into consideration my life is pretty dandy… by pure luck.
The charity Shelter estimated last year that there were over 300,000 homeless people living in the UK. This is around one in 200 of the population, and it’s rising. I was keen to investigate the common reasons why somebody ends up homeless, and the only real common denominator I could find was that 100% of the homeless people I spoke to had experienced some kind of ‘family breakdown’. That is to say they have either been born into a broken family (eg. a family where only one parent is present, or where somebody in the family is abusive) or their family has broken (eg. one parent leaves and the other can’t cope, or somebody in the family dies). I was constantly reminded that becoming homeless can happen to anyone. But for someone to become homeless, something must have happened to them which wasn’t a result of their own decisions.
Given what so many of the homeless people I spoke to have been through, it does not surprise me that drug and alcohol addiction are so rife on the streets, and why some people beg for money to get them. As great as the voluntary services are, it is difficult to numb the pain of what’s been done, and they are not always there. Drugs and alcohol, on the other hand, are mighty impressive stuff which have an immediately powerful effect, and always there. We all know it – it’s why so many of us take them.
The difference between the way most of us drink alcohol and the way I’ve seen a lot of people on the street drink, however, is that most of us don’t drink it all the time. I imagine most of us would be drunk more of the time if we didn’t have so many other things to do, and opportunities to motivate us. But unlike a lot of the homeless community, most of us have a job, a house, and a family that wouldn’t let us be homeless.
I frequently asked people why they drink/smoke/snort/inject so much, and the most common response was simply “boredom”. See, without a job, a house, or a family that cares, there just isn’t much to be motivated by. Of course, there a plenty of people out there who have overcome addiction or avoided it completely. But almost all the rough sleepers I met are constantly fighting the temptation of drugs/alcohol to help get them through each day, and this is no surprise.
One of my closest friends on the streets is very open about being a crackhead. He denounces begging, jovially reckons he has more SuperDry branded clothes than anyone else in Bournemouth and is the most positive person I have ever met. He also doesn’t like drinking alcohol because it makes him feel terrible.
He does spend a fair bit of his monthly universal credit on crack though, which would frustrate me more if he wasn’t so upbeat about everything and friendly to everyone. Still, I’ve told him brutally a number of times that he should come off it and save his money, so that he can get a roof over his head. If he doesn’t first reply with “I’ve already got one” (talking about his tent), then he will explain to me how he’d have to save months and months before being able to pay the ever-increasing cost of living. I have another friend who has just come off the streets and is now in private accommodation but is struggling to pay the bills. I’m not denying that these people could do more to fight their addictions, but I do think that without affordable housing there is not much incentive for them. As one person told me: “Before I was homeless I drunk and took drugs to have a good time, but now they are part of my daily life. They just make the days go quicker”.
There is a lot of room and quite a lot of money, but not for the homeless
So there is a housing crisis, and the current homelessness crisis is largely a result of that. But what is the solution?
Since I moved to Bournemouth four years ago, a fancy new building to house hundreds of students has been built each year. My homeless friends regularly point these out to me (including the one I used to live in), and wonder why similar accommodation can’t be built for them.
So why can’t it? An obvious argument might be that the Government can’t afford to fund such projects, whereas universities can. Annual tuition fees subtly rose from £9,000 to £9,250 two years ago for undergrad students, at a time when there were 19,045 at Bournemouth Uni. That extra £250 multiplied by 19,045 students equals an extra of £4,761,250 that the university has to play with. I know it is not a universities obligation to help the homeless, but it is frightening to know how easily they can conjure up close to five million pounds out of students, whilst affordable social housing appears to be rapidly vanishing under this Government.
One homeless man said to me bluntly: “This country is rich. Nobody should be homeless here”. At first I thought his observation might be a tad hasty, but perhaps he has a point. It is not a university’s obligation to help the homeless, but surely it is the Government’s?
An ardent Remainer myself, I do now empathise with the homeless Leavers I met who are frustrated to see immigrants living in homes, whilst the support they get, in terms of having a roof over their head, often seems close to zero. I am aware that the budgets of local councils are being cut, but only the other week Bournemouth Borough Council were allocated a further £349,250 as part of the Government’s initiative to end rough sleeping by 2027. This is good news, but will it be spent wisely?
In February, Professor Green was in Bournemouth drawing attention to the £3,650 ‘anti-homeless’ metal bars which the Council had fitted to public benches in order to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. They were soon removed, and this isn’t the only example of money being spent unwisely. To my disbelief, there is actually no direct access night shelter in Bournemouth – despite being asked numerous times for “any spare change to get into the night shelter” by those who beg. The only night shelter in Bournemouth where you could show up with the money and pay for the night was closed down in 2013…
Since then, if you want a roof over your head but can’t afford to rent a place, you must go directly to the council where you will be put on a long list (homelessness in Bournemouth is thought to have risen 300% since 2010) until eventually, maybe, the council will pay between £200-£300 per week for you to stay in some supported accommodation. I wouldn’t actually have any qualms about there being no direct access night shelters so long as a.) there was enough supported accommodation to match the amount of people sleeping rough, and b.) these supported accommodations were successfully supporting the people who stayed there.
I don’t know enough about these supported accommodations to judge the extent to which they ‘support’ the homeless community efficiently, but I do feel like £200-£300 is quite a lot of money, especially seeing as this year I’ve been paying £100 a week to stay in a fairly nice house. I have also been told by a lot of rough sleepers that they feel trapped, following instructions but getting nowhere, and reverting back to their addictions as a result of this.
Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution to the homelessness crisis, but there is an obvious pattern behind it: a family breakdown leads to addiction to drugs and/or alcohol; the addiction leads to them losing their home; sleeping on the streets exacerbates their addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. And so the vicious cycle begins.
With this pattern in mind, I suppose the ideal solution would be to ensure there are no broken families – but that is tough to achieve. A popular solution to those already homeless is to house them first, seeing as there is evidence of this working in other European countries; housing the homeless as a solution to the crisis, rather than finding solutions to get them housed. A lot of the homeless people I spoke to liked this idea, and I do to. But I don’t think it will work unless there is a serious and effective effort to tackle the addiction problems that so many rough sleepers have – which again, is tough to achieve.
Or is it not? I would love to hear from you if you know an obvious solution. Despite the hours I’ve now spent, I certainly am not an expert. After all, 125 hours isn’t much when there are people I’ve met who have been doing this for ten years plus! What I am sure of is this though: The rough sleepers you see but might often ignore are great people, and they’ve got some amazing stories…so talk to them. You’ll have more in common than you might think.