Homeless – They are not just numbers!

The problem of the homeless and the invisibility of those who live on the streets is something that usually comes packaged in the form of numbers, statistics or services offered by Governments, councils or organizations. According to Crisis[1], it is hard to define the exact number of homeless in the UK. The latest Government data released in 2017, however, show 4,134 sleep rough in England, one of the most difficult conditions of homeless. Julie Cherry, Andrew Bright and David Huxley feature in this story and tell how they overcame the difficulties that they encountered on the streets.

Never say “good morning” or “good afternoon” to someone you meet when you want to get close to someone who lives or has spent the night on the street. This was a piece of advice offered by an ex-homeless person to anyone who tries to approach to people who live or have lived situations of extreme vulnerability. According to Julie Cherry, 48, it is impossible to get anything “good” by staying outside overnight. This was the first and rich apprenticeship.

The stories recounted in Bournemouth Square have many similarities, and seem to follow a script to be told by many who lived or still live as a homeless individual.

Julie’s story, for example, resembles those told by those who experienced spending time on the streets, with nowhere to go. The changing point of this woman’s life, who worked 16 hours a day as a Personal Assistant in London, occurred in sequence: the death of her parents, the discovery of a disease that caused the loss of her job, losing her home.

David Huxley went through a divorce and came to Bournemouth looking for a new start. He ended up on the streets, drinking a lot, and taking drugs to sleep, what he says is the only thing left to do, when he’s out on the streets. “It’s not fun. I knew someone who died on the street last month due to the cold”, he says.

With regard to Andrew John Bright, his rent expired, he became unemployed, and he ended up on the streets, where he stayed for more than nine months on cold winter nights.

The stories told by these three people unfortunately remind us of the clichéd phrase that this harsh reality can happen to anyone. In addition to having lived on the streets for a season, however, the story of these three people has something else in common. In the history of the three, one can note the struggle to overcome their plight, the positive desire to live a better life and especially the feeling of neglect on the part of the public authorities. Julie, for example, who paid all her taxes in over 20 years of work, tried to get help from the Council, but received a series of incorrect contact details.  When she finally found a contact, she heard that she was not on the priority list because she had no children. As a consequence, she had to sleep on the street, until finally she was able to go to a charity-funded homeless accommodation, where she stayed for 3 months until she could rent her own house. “It was a short season (living on the streets) but I learnt fast,” she recalls.

Private (and good) initiatives to social (and bad) problems

The psycho-therapist and counsellor Steve Fatuga works today on the Big Issue magazine[i] offering assistance to people who want to stop using drugs and alcohol. From his long experience, he says that the lack of investments in this area is clear. “Every area of public service, like housing, NHS, mental health, polices for homelessness have deteriorated,” he observes. For him, regardless of which Party is in power, the perception that he has is that the politicians are disconnected of what average people need, their aspirations or dreams,especially from those who live from one paycheque to the next.

And it does not matter if someone pays taxes all their lives, if they make a bad choice or become homeless, they do not care when the chips are down. It is visible how this number is increasing. There are streets in Southamptom, for example, that are taken over with many homeless individuals but the feeling I have is that they are invisible to the public.

Fatuga recalls that few years ago, when he used to seek help for drug-addicts or alcoholics, he was able to get treatment within a week and in less than a month to send them to a rehabilitation clinic. “Today it takes from six months to a year. It is a long time. And without this help, many cannot get over their problems”, he says.

With the slogan “A hand up, not a handout”, Laura Cobbin believes the Magazine, The Big Issue can contribute to their journey of empowerment. The most important part of the work, however, is done by more than 60 vendors scattered throughout the towns of Bournemouth, Hampshire and Salisbury.

For those interviewed, The Big Issue magazine is an important resource for re-assessing their lives and often initiates progress towards fulfilling their dreams: Julie plans a trip to a friend’s wedding at a castle in Ireland; David has already bought a car and dreams of opening his own business by buying and selling used furniture and Andy thinks of working on repairing electrical and electronic appliances. These people have strong personalities and self-determination, to overcome the adversities of life.

“Seeing them here at 8:30 in the morning ready to work is a huge change,” Cobbin notes, while she explains the initiatives offered by the magazine’s staff to take the homeless out of the streets. She observes a complete disregard of authorities about this growing problem in the city, although she points to other initiatives, such as the Southampton Football Club Foundation[ii], which offer training courses, and local connections that make it possible for them to have more doors open to them.

Patricia Britto

The Big Issue magazine is released every Monday. The magazine is bought by locals or ex-homeless people for £ 1.20 and sold by them for £ 2.50. The profit obtained is part of the income offered to the residents.

It is worth mentioning that this article is independent and has no links with the cited magazine.

[1] Glen Bramley, ‘Homelessness Projection: Core Homelessness in Great Britain’ (Crisis Report, August 2017

https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237582/crisis_homelessness_projections_2017.pdf> accessed 01 Mar 2018

2 https://www.bigissue.org.uk/

3 https://southamptonfc.com/