Homelessness is on the rise.
Rough sleeping in the UK has more than doubled since 2010, with thousands more people sleeping on the streets than before.
As well as shortening your life expectancy, rough sleeping also increases your chance of going to prison. This is because many people who sleep rough also suffer from multiple physical or mental health conditions and the effects of drug or alcohol misuse. They are also at a far greater risk of violence or exploitation then members of the general public.
Despite these disadvantages, rough sleepers are often stigmatised or ignored, and members of the public might avoid giving them money for fear of encouraging homelessness or funding a drug addiction. But is this fear justified?
We spoke to a former prisoner his about his experience of living on the streets.
How did you become homeless?
I became homeless after a relationship breakdown with my mum, things had been stewing for a long time and all hell finally broke loose.
Why didn’t you just stay with another relative?
My aunt was my first port of call. However, I had forgotten to answer bail for a common assault case and the police came looking for me. They started with my mum’s house and when I wasn’t there, went to my aunt’s house. From what she told me the police were very rude and intrusive. She was afraid of it happening again, so she told me she didn’t feel comfortable having me in the house and that I needed to find somewhere else to stay. I handed myself in and was given a youth offending team order.
Where did you go after that?
After having to leave my aunt’s house I spoke to a welfare officer at college who arranged for me to stay in someone’s house, but that was only for a few days. After that I started walking around during the night taking breaks on benches here and there. I was also sleeping at a friend’s house during the day when his mum wasn’t in. Unfortunately she clocked on to what was going on and told my friend not to allow me to sleep there anymore.
After that I started sleeping on public transport. Some nights I would take the night buses in circles until about 6, as most night drivers let you on without any money if you ask. Sometimes there were nights where I wasn’t able to get on to a bus, so I would get on a train that runs throughout the night from Bedford to Brighton. The nights went really quickly on that train, as it’s nearly three hours end to end and I got a warm place to sleep. I’d stay on it until the morning, or when a ticket inspector came and kicked me off. Maybe once or twice a fortnight I would get to stay at friend’s house, but if not that it would be the street.
What did you eat/drink?
Hardly anything. I used to survive on £1 a day sometimes (two wings and chips) or if I had £1.50 I could get four wings and chips. If I wasn't near a food shop I would get a can of Nourishment. They were £1 and that was enough for a few hours.
What’s the reality of surviving on the streets?
The reality is not being able to sleep properly, having bad hygiene practices, becoming an outcast, being the topic of discussion ("I swear I seen him in the same clothes yesterday… I heard this and that…"). It’s also having no one to turn to and tell your problems, being looked down on by others because you are sleeping on a bench or asking for a cigarette and having no money so resorting to stealing food from shops just to eat. Getting caught stealing is the worst. The embarrassment and shame from the eyes of customers when you’re being walked out of the shop by security is horrible. Another reality is risking your life and freedom to fund the habits you pick up on the streets.
Did you ever use drink/drugs?
You have to have a really strong mind to be in that situation and not let things get to you. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a strong mind. I often used drink and drugs to mask the pain and to help me get to sleep, because the the conditions are so undesirable. I’d drink half a bottle of spirits a day or a few cans of strong cider.
I remember the first time I took crack cocaine. I’d met a few rough sleepers in Camden and went with them to meet their dealer. The dealer instantly took a liking to me and when I explained my story he ‘sympathised’ with me. I thought he was being kind, not knowing at the time all he could see was a vulnerable teen who needed money, drugs and a place to stay.
He offered to help me and told me to contact him the next day. I met up with him and he brought me some brand new trainers and a jacket. He told me he had an opportunity for me to earn some quick money. I was apprehensive at first but took him up on his offer and was taken to the countryside to sell drugs for him. In return I would get £200 a week and I could stay at a drug user’s house for as long as I wanted. The house I was staying at was filthy, bin bags everywhere and a dog running around urinating in corners so you can imagine what it smelt like. After a week of staying there, I asked the user what the crack cocaine did to him, he explained and passed me the pipe to try some. I thought to myself ‘what could be worse than the situation I’m in?’
What he left out was how addictive it would be, and that’s when things went from bad to worse. We ended up smoking £600 worth. The dealer came up from London and threatened to kill me if I didn’t get his money for him, so I had to start working off the debt for free. The only payment I got was 2 rocks of crack a day for personal use. It took me three weeks to pay off the money and I went back to London broke and with a new addiction. I started looking for other users and stealing things with them from shops and houses just to fund our habits.
How much money did you make a day?
Depending on who I was around or what I was doing, it varied. Sometimes I wouldn’t make a penny, but sometimes £50 - £100. I also used play roulette at the betting shops that would sometimes top up my earnings.
What did you spend that money on?
Mostly drugs and drink. Anything to keep my mind at ease and to block out the reality of things. I hated how I looked and how I had no one to help me.
Where did you wash? If you didn’t, did smelling not bother you?
I used to either wash once a week at a friend’s house or sometimes in the toilets of trains and betting shops. I used to carry around a flannel for my face. There were times when I couldn’t wash at a friend’s house and I would notice the underlying smell of body odour. I couldn’t help it, but the drugs and drink I was taking started to help me accept it.
How do you stay warm on the streets?
I was lucky enough to still have the jacket from the dealer which saved me, but before that my warm place was the bus or train
Do you think people walking past rough sleepers can / should do something to help? What is that thing?
Not really, I will be very honest. Most homeless people only beg for money to fund habits and will not buy food. There are still genuinely homeless people that do not drink or take drugs, but it’s pretty rare. What would probably help the most is a hot meal or even a sandwich. I once went two days without eating. I had to beg the chicken shop man to let me owe him a pound for two wings and chips.
Where you ever offered help by a street charity? Did you turn it down?
A street homeless worker used to come around and offer help to street sleepers. I really wanted the help at the time but I was so consumed by the drink and drugs at that time I chose to stay out there just so that I could keep getting high.
Did you ever sleep in a hostel? What’s it like?
I was arrested for a few offences and put on probation, and through my probation worker I managed to get a referral to a hostel. This was full of a arrary of people, including drug dealers. When I first got there, I nearly got myself into the same trouble as I had before. I was owing out to another resident who was selling, but this guy was more understanding and I managed to pay him off with my benefits. After that I started trying to change my life around and put everything behind me, especially the drink and drugs. I took advantage of the support that was being offered and engaged with my key worker to make positive steps to change.
What do you want people to know about being homeless?
It’s not a joke. It will bring out another side in you that you never even knew was there. If you ever find yourself in that situation try and get help as soon as possible, even if the help doesn’t come straight away.
DO NOT let yourself get drawn into what is going on around you.
DO NOT let any take advantage of your situation to exploit you.
Lastly, being homeless is not the end of the world. I was homeless once, but now I’m at university studying for a degree in Electronic Engineering. Not everyone’s journey will be the same but there IS light at the end of the tunnel.