I smile at Graham*, one of the Big Issue sellers who works on my street, as I wander past on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Graham and I are pretty familiar with each other by now; I buy a copy of the Big Issue from him on Mondays and deliver a cup of tea to him on Tuesdays. I don’t usually visit on Wednesdays, but this week’s different. Today I need Graham’s help and, luckily for me, he’s agreed to give it.
At a nearby cafe, we sit down for a toasted sandwich and a carton of juice to talk about Graham’s life. There’s a down-to-earth charisma about him that puts us both at ease, despite the personal nature of my questions. He retains a half-smile as our conversation begins.
“I’m homeless. That’s all people normally want to know,” he says with a shrug. “Once you’re homeless, that’s all you are. Everyone assumes you’re just a waste of space, not worth a minute of their time.”
Graham, 44, once lived in a rented flat a few miles from the centre of Norwich and worked as a lorry driver. When he lost his driving licence in 2011, things took a turn for the worse in his life. Within a year, he found himself broke, evicted and sleeping rough. “It’s a lonely existence as a lorry driver,” he tells me. “I didn’t have friends or family I could turn to and it was too embarrassing to even think about asking anyone I knew for money.” He shrugs again. “So here I am. Living on the streets. One of them homeless people ‘taking advantage’ of other people’s generosity.”
Many feel so demoralised by the process, they simply resign themselves to life on the streets.
Official figures show that 162,960 households in the UK applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2013/14, and yet just 52% of these households were accepted as homeless and defined as “in priority need”. The majority of those who are entitled to receive help from their council are families with children, those with mental health problems, and elderly people - groups that are the focus of government intervention and support across the board in Britain. This data represents the UK’s visible homeless, but there are many more, like Graham, who live an invisible life unacknowledged by the government.
“In order to qualify for support, you will need to be eligible for public funds, have a connection to the local area, be considered ‘unintentionally homeless’ and prove that you are in ‘priority need’,” says Sarah MacFadyen, policy manager for the homeless charity Crisis. “This means that many single homeless people in particular won’t qualify for support. For these people, either friends and family or local charities are their best option for ongoing help and advice.”
Those labelled “single homeless” are unlikely to be eligible for local authority housing. Without a fixed address, claiming benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance becomes an uphill struggle. Many feel so demoralised by the process, they simply give up on pursuing help and resign themselves to life on the streets.
“Homelessness is a devastating experience which has a seriously detrimental effect on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. It can damage resilience, self-esteem and self-confidence, and leave people unable to think about employment while worrying about housing,” MacFayden tells me. “On top of this, if you do not qualify for support from the council, high rents and prohibitive deposits can make finding a place to live in the private rented sector extremely difficult.”
The council has no legal obligation to provide assistance or support — and so it doesn’t.
Later that day, I walk down towards Norwich train station where I meet 20-year-old Jo*, who sleeps rough in the doorway of a Mattressman shop most nights. She’s a striking young woman; powder-blue eyes, ash-blonde hair twisted into a messy bun and a fiery, straightforward demeanour. We haven’t met before today, but she agrees to speak to me. We go for hot chocolate and cake in the nearby Costa Coffee shop, attached to a Premier Inn hotel. “I heard a woman say this place was a shithole the other day,” Jo tells me as we sit down. “She walked past me with my sleeping bag and my rucksack and didn’t even notice I was there. Loads of people ignore or shout abuse at people like me. But a lot of the time they’re oblivious, not ignorant.”
Jo left home at age 17 and slept on friends’ sofas for the next 18 months. She suffered abuse at home - something she doesn’t want to talk about in detail - and walked out one day when she just couldn’t take it anymore. She didn’t know where to go for help and was worried that the authorities would make her return to the home she’d run away from.
“It was almost two years before I tried to claim benefits. But they told me I’d made myself homeless on purpose, so they wouldn’t give me anything,” she tells me. “So I stopped asking, which I think is what they want, really. It’s easier if we’re quiet, not on the records, dealt with and disappeared.”
What Jo refers to is a local authority’s requirement to establish whether individuals have made themselves “intentionally homeless”, meaning they left accommodation they could have stayed in. Reasons for this include doing or failing to do something that caused you to leave your home, and acting or failing to act on something that caused you to leave your home. Using this broad criteria, a council can decide that it was reasonable for you to continue living where you were, and therefore you made yourself “intentionally homeless” by choosing to leave. When this definition has been established, the council has no legal obligation to provide assistance or support, and so it doesn’t.
In reality, situations are rarely so simple, and this tick-box approach directly contributes to the number of both visible and invisible homeless citizens living in Britain today. “It is an incredibly hard journey unless you are considered a priority by the council,” says Nathan Tapper of homeless charity Dads House, which emphasises support for single fathers, who are very often ineligible for state assistance. “It could take years [to get help] and that’s with charities stepping in to bridge the gap. But without funding, and with homelessness rising, it’s a hard battle.”
After all, we are all just people separated by circumstances.
Charities and voluntary organisations are increasingly the ones providing support for homeless people through schemes such as drop-in centres, soup kitchens, night shelters and befriending schemes. Crisis and Dads House are part of a sector that in many cases does significantly more - with access to significantly fewer resources - than the government and local authorities we trust with billions in tax money every year.
“Welfare reforms have pushed vulnerable people further into more challenging and difficult circumstances. Sadly, with £12 billion anticipated further cuts to the welfare budget, we expect a further rise in those people pushed into vulnerability,” says Clare Skelton, communications officer at the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), an arm of the Catholic Church that works with many of the country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. “Beyond the figures, the real human cost of homelessness – mental health, loss of dignity, scapegoating and marginalisation - must be considered.”
So what can be done to change things? Political and legal reform could place more responsibility on government bodies and local authorities to take action in preventing and abolishing homelessness, but these are issues that rarely garner mainstream attention, which is one of the reasons that policies remained largely unchanged during Britain’s last parliament.
But both community and individual action are still possible, and crucially important. “I think in our communities we have forgotten our neighbours. I would like to see more centres opened, more food banks and more information [distributed] about how to help or who to donate to,” Tapper says. “And on an individual level, it would be great to offer a coffee or a sandwich to someone sleeping rough, or to take five minutes out of your day to say hello. After all, we are all just people separated by circumstances.”
The two homeless individuals, Graham and Jo, interviewed for this story requested that their names be changed and their photographs be omitted from the resulting feature. In respect of their privacy, these requests have been honoured.
Image: Mark O’Rourke via Flickr (Creative Commons Licence)