Photo by Chris Bethell
Throughout the course of last year, the number of homeless people in England increased by almost a third. Following the release of those bleak new statistics, Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homeless charity Crisis, said that more needs to be done to stop people falling into homelessness in the first place.But what about those already sleeping rough or living in temporary accommodation? What kind of obstacles must be overcome to find permanent housing? I spoke to five formerly homeless people to find out how they got off the streets for good.
The road to homelessness started when I sustained an injury while working as a cameraman. After being off sick for a while, my employers found a way to sack me, which left me very depressed, because I'd been working there for 15 years. One day, while in a particularly low mood, I randomly decided to hop on a train to Weymouth and live on the streets there. I'd never been there before and knew nothing about the place; I chose it at random from the departures list at Victoria Station. As you can gather, my mind was heavily clouded by depression at the time.I spent six months sleeping rough in Weymouth, and then came back to London and did the same thing there for three months. The fact that I was so down all the time made it difficult for me to think straight, which was one of the reasons I avoided seeking help for so long. I was in a constant state of disbelief, thinking, How did I go from working a professional job to waking up shivering on the pavement like this?When it got to September, I couldn't face another winter on the streets, so I went to Ealing Council and asked them for help. They sent me to another department to get the necessary paperwork to get a room in a hostel, but I had a panic attack and ended up running out. Looking back, I think that was partly because of the strain my brain was under from getting so little food or sleep. It took me two weeks to build up the confidence to go back there, apologize and pick up the documents. Luckily, the effort paid off, because I managed to get a place in a hostel in Southall.
I was eventually introduced to a housing organization called Paradigm, who paid for me to move into a tiny box room in a house. Since then, I've helped found an organization called City Harvest that delivers food to homeless charities. That's provided me with a sense of purpose. When I talk to the recipients of the food, it's obvious that we're making a big difference, which makes me feel better when I get a bit down. I haven't quite dealt with all of the issues that caused me to become homeless, but I'm getting there one step at a time. There's no chance of me going back on the streets, because I've found a way of giving something back, and am enjoying doing something positive.
When I was 16 I went off the rails a bit after the breakdown of my parents' relationship. One thing led to another and I ended up moving into a hostel for young people, where I stayed for ten months. I was lucky, because it was of quite a high quality, and the standard of care and support that I received was great.The local council eventually offered me a flat. Everyone else thought it was a shit-hole, but after being in a hostel for so long, I thought, Oh my god, this is a palace! The flat had been sat there for two years, because all the other people who had looked at it had turned it down, which tells you something about it. But to me, it was perfection.Fortunately, I managed to get a job relatively quickly—but this was pre-recession, so I'd imagine it's now far more difficult for someone who has recently experienced homelessness to find work. Because of my experiences, I naturally ended up gravitating towards working in the field of housing. I now manage a company called People's Property Shop, which works with homeless charities across the North West. I take pride in helping the vulnerable with their housing needs.
Through my work, I've learned that the issue of homelessness isn't caused by a lack of housing; the main problem is getting support to the people who need it. Many previously homeless people who have just gained accommodation are also vulnerable and require ongoing advice and assistance. Landlords aren't social workers, and aren't in the position to deal with some tenants' complex problems. I was lucky to be able to get my life on track and put my previous situation behind me. Unfortunately, many don't receive the same opportunities that I had.
While studying at university I became very ill, due to my HIV-positive status, and found myself unable to work. My family weren't in a position to help me out financially, so I ended up getting two months behind on my rent. I attempted to get assistance from the council, but they told me I wasn't entitled to housing benefit because I was a student. This triggered a severe case of depression, and I tried to kill myself by taking an overdose. Upon recovery, I returned home from hospital to find that the landlord had changed the locks. This left me with no choice but to live in my car for the next six months.I repeatedly asked Islington Council for help, but their attitude was that I would be OK because I had a car to sleep in. There were also specific criteria that I needed to meet in order for them to re-house me, and I didn't make the grade because I hadn't paid my outstanding rent. In reality, a large percentage of homeless people end up with no fixed abode for this reason.
I eventually managed to get a place in a cold-weather shelter, and was later accepted into a homeless hostel, where I stayed for a year. I was lucky, as charities can't keep up with the demand for beds in hostels because there are too many people without permanent accommodation. They're trying, though, and I would definitely advise those who find themselves in the circumstances that I was in to seek help from charitable organizations rather than the government.Because I'd previously served in the army, I was able to seek assistance from the Veterans' Nomination Scheme, who sorted me out with a house. Certain councils are obliged to house two homeless ex-servicemen a year as part of this program, which was a lifesaver. I'm fortunate enough to have managed to forge a successful career as an artist since my homeless days, but being isolated and self-destructive for so long is not an easy thing to get over. I'm still rebuilding my life now, and it first started to fall apart in 2011. It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to get back to normal after a period of homelessness, but it isn't impossible, and I'm definitely making good progress.
At age 15, I ran away from home. At the time, I was a suicidal, agoraphobic self-harmer, and the education system had given up on me. I ended up hitch-hiking to Scotland and sofa-surfing with my boyfriend for about six months. I started drinking copiously and taking drugs to blot out the seriousness of my situation. Because of this, I was unwelcome everywhere I went.
I'd been through a lot already at that stage, but never knew what it really meant to feel like scum until I experienced homelessness. I felt anchorless and realized how little I really knew about the adult world. Once I'd burnt my bridges in Scotland, I returned to my hometown and ended up in a relationship with a man ten years older than me. He probably saved my life in many ways, but it was a toxic, controlling relationship. I eventually left him and briefly moved back in with my family, but my stepdad didn't want me around and kicked me out.After a lot of persuasion, I ended up getting my own room in a six-bedroom multi-occupant house. The landlord was a hippy called Les, who had a genuine desire to help others. In my semi-rural hometown, there were virtually no services to help people with the type of problems I had, so if he hadn't taken me in, I know for a fact I wouldn't be here now. I owe him a lot.It was sometimes difficult living in a communal environment, as there was often conflict, gossip, and power struggles, but there was also a genuine sense of community, and I developed lifelong friendships. I also developed a much stronger relationship with my mum. We had both been through hell, but once I had my own room, our relationship became a lot more secure.I'm very lucky to have been able to get an education in my thirties and now run my own freelance writing business, Word Magick. However, the feeling that I was once one of life's losers has never completely left me. That has definitely made me more determined to succeed.
I plucked up the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship with an older man shortly after my 18th birthday. I stayed with someone I thought was a friend, but unfortunately he assaulted me while I was asleep in a completely unprovoked attack. I didn't even know what was going on at the time, and it was totally unexpected. He was arrested and jailed, and I was left homeless.I spent the period between November of 2008 and January of 2009 sofa-surfing, with no stable accommodation. My friends were very supportive, but I still felt under an extreme amount of pressure and had to leave college because of the stress. The upside to this was that it gave me more time to concentrate on gaining permanent accommodation. I asked a local charity called the Supported Housing for Young People's Project (SHYPP) for help, and they supported me both physically and psychologically. They offered me places to stay when my friends couldn't put me up, and provided food and counseling.One night, I was unable to find anyone to stay with and ended up sleeping in a cash point lobby. I had no covers to provide me with warmth, and it was the scariest night of my life. During all the time that I was homeless, I felt a constant urge to commit suicide. I would walk across a bridge over a river several times a day, imagining throwing myself off it into the water. I genuinely felt as if I wanted to end my life.Fortunately, after a while, the SHYPP helped me get housed in supported accommodation. Around three days after moving in, I had a breakdown, which was clearly a result of all the stress that I'd been under. My hair started falling out, I couldn't eat, I found myself unable to get out of bed, and wanted to kill myself. These feelings of despair and severe depression continued for nine months after I got housed, but luckily eventually subsided. The horrors of being homeless still haunt me today, although I have grown stronger and more able to deal with them. I wouldn't wish homelessness on anyone, as it was degrading and soul destroying.David Tovey is currently designing clothes for Hopeful Traders, a company that collaborates with homeless-affected artists, and Hugo Sugg is running a homelessness awareness campaign.Follow Nick Chester on Twitter.