As I woke up from my third night on the streets, I started to feel it. Sleep deprivation had kicked in, so the word didn’t come to me immediately and it still hasn’t as I start to write this article at home in the warm. Feeling unable to move my mouth to speak properly or even bring to mind the right words wasn’t a side effect I’d imagined.
Stretching in a vain attempt to rid my bones of the deepest imaginable chill, I was sure about one thing: I was in a very different position to the other people who had spent that Saturday night in the nooks and crannies of Cheltenham town centre. As a council cabinet member for housing, I knew I could make changes to help and had already started to ask myself what should be done. And answering that question is how I had found myself waking up on the streets.
As anyone involved in the public sector will tell you, the starting point of answering any question is usually some form of consultation. This means anyone who may be affected by a policy change can have their say. But in the case of rough sleepers or street people you can’t really ask the people whose lives will be most impacted. When somebody’s main tasks every day are gathering a few pounds for a meal, staying warm and then finding a place to sleep, why would they bother to take part in something like a council consultation? And if they’re living on the streets or in insecure accommodation it’s pretty unlikely they’d even find out in the first place.
To get over this hurdle I carried out my own hands-on consultation and my experiences over those three nights will stay with me for the rest of my life. I won’t be able to shake off that uncomfortable feeling – the name of which I still can’t bring to my sleep deprived mind – for some time. I’ll always remember the feelings of vulnerability and I’ll always remember the bone-creaking cold.
Layer by layer, piece by piece, a homeless person is cast adrift from society to a point where people are either embarrassed or disgusted. I am firmly in the embarrassed category. I’m embarrassed that our nation has totally failed to deal with the housing crisis to a point at which homelessness has doubled in four years. I’m embarrassed that our government has forced people into this situation. Even in Cheltenham, which by most standards is a fairly well-off town, we have experienced a near 100% increase in rough sleeping since 2013.
Add to the ranks of homeless people those who are begging for survival and you have a picture of a system failing to cope. We have so many people in crises that local authorities and charities are at breaking point.
It didn’t take long to find out how the failures of government have left homeless people in a situation so horrifically removed from the basic comfort they deserve. Sitting on a street full of shops, cafés and the hustle of bustle of people going about their lives, the first thing I realised was that I had no purpose. I sat without anything to do and this apparently caused me to become invisible. Very occasionally I came back into view when a kind person would stop and talk, but invariably most people walked by, some looking past me and others looking through me. Given the negative perceptions about homeless people and those in poverty perpetuated over many years, this was hardly a surprise.
The lack of human interaction makes the time pass grindingly slowly, but one way to make it speed up is drop in sessions at charity locations. These offer warmth with a hot drink and some food without any feeling that you are invisible or being judged. Spending time speaking to support workers, volunteers and street people quickly equipped me with the little knowledge needed to survive but other nuggets of information would be learned along the way, making survival slightly easier. But you can’t stay forever. Just like you can’t stay forever nursing one morning warm-up coffee in McDonald’s.
Along with the slowness of the day, I also found the nights slowed down. Rough sleeping is a slight misnomer because it implies there is an amount of sleeping involved. A more accurate description would be: “rough lying down, avoiding the damp/wet, lessening the cold, cat napping in fear”. Homeless people I spoke to told me that having a choice of a ‘spot’ is paramount because your previous spot may not be available. If you’re lucky, you might even find an upgrade to a better spot. A decent amount of sleep can have such a massive effect on your wellbeing that it does occupy a lot of your thought during the day.
The remainder of my thoughts on the streets then and at home now turn to the people I met. Understandably they were at first quite wary when faced with someone who they perceived to be in authority. They were also wary about my apparent interest in their plight – perhaps a sign that they were used to being treated as a walking crisis rather than a human. They were shocked and pleased in equal measure when I asked for their opinions. So it didn’t take long before word spread and I felt accepted on the street. OK, perhaps I was tolerated rather than accepted, but that was good enough.
I learned so much about the complex array of individual circumstances impacting street people. I won’t use their real names for fear of embarrassing them, but I met a man called Dave who had no visible personal crisis at all aside from the lack of a home. I met others, such as Tara, who was an alcoholic and told me this was the only way she could get through the day. I met John, who was a longstanding drug addict. Many of them had mental health issues to varying degrees. They were old and young, mostly male but a few female, some with accommodation some without. None of them were being treated as an individual, they were victims of circumstance and each had an individual crisis that was worsened by life on the streets. Most hauntingly, I met a man who was in his 50s. He smelt strongly of alcohol. I asked him about his situation and his response was stark and heart-breaking in equal measure: “after twenty years living in my tent I’m just waiting to die”. In his case all hope had gone. In many others I met hope was very distant.
Spending time with and talking to around 25 people existing on our streets I was blown away by their empathy for others and the kindness they showed towards me. There was also a surprising constant theme, this theme was expressed in a variety of ways, some with anger often with deflated resignation. “It doesn’t work” and or “it isn’t fair.” They were talking about, of course, ‘the system’. The set of rules, the bureaucracy and the inflexible approach to dealing with complex individual crises.
Having spent 72 hours in a different world – one growing at an alarming rate – I have a final thought. Where self-worth has been suppressed to a point at which it no longer may be restored, where addiction grips people to the point of near death on the streets and where people lose all hope of ever having even basic shelter, our society has failed.
P.S. As my mind starts to work again I can remember the word I was searching for when I started writing: dehumanised. To be homeless is to have your status as a member of the human race cruelly taken away. Those of us who can help must do everything we can give it back.
* Cllr Peter Jeffries is the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member for Housing on Cheltenham Borough Council