As is well known, I had a very abusive childhood living with people who were racist, homophobic and violent.
At 17, I walked out into a thunderstorm and after a few nights staying with a friend, began sleeping rough. Had I known this would last 3 years… I would’ve done exactly the same. That’s how bad it was.
Can you imagine how a child feels to be told he will never be loved or trusted? To be attacked in the street when his male parent just stands and looks on? To have scalding coffee thrown in his face by his female parent? To be totally disbelieved by anyone he turned to for help? Nobody deserves that kind of treatment, and especially not a defenceless young person facing it from the people who are supposed to protect him.
I spent a few weeks on the streets in Sheffield. I was briefly accepted into a hostel but was very scared there and felt I’d actually be safer exposed to the elements. I hitchhiked to London and went to the only place I knew, the so called Cardboard City at Waterloo.
This was in late 1987, the final years of the Thatcher government and a time of aggressive persecution against rough sleepers. It’s all very well to justify hosing people out of doorways and moving them on every night but it’s hardly a solution. The policy seemed simply to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If respectable working people don’t see this underclass, they won’t worry about it. This antagonistic and blinkered short term approach was utterly self defeating. The problem is still with us and deteriorating.
Perhaps I’m being cynical (that’s a polite way of saying I’m not) but as most people don’t have a vote, why should any political party care about them?
I was terrified while I was in London and although I was never seriously assaulted, I was mugged a few times. This was a consequence of where I was as it was always other rough sleepers trying to take advantage of the weakest. All I had was a jacket and shoes but this was enough to warrant the threat and application of violence.
I started to skirt with illegality myself and on several occasions broke into private parks, churches and even gardens just for somewhere solitary to sleep. I tried to beg but simply couldn’t bring myself to do it so, I’m ashamed to say, I would shoplift loaves of bread and fruit. Sometimes, I had to resort to an even baser level to earn a few pounds and those times were truly my lowest self loathing ebb.
After a year, I jumped on a train, without a ticket, to Harwich and stowed away on the ferry to Holland. I spent the next 18 months sleeping and shivering on a staircase in Amsterdam Central Station. Occasionally when I had no choice, I would return again to my solitary money earning option. I was a teenager forced into this by hunger, agony and fear. Please take a moment to consider how I must have felt about the world and myself.
By a stroke of luck I was able to escape this life when I was offered a job upon arrival in Germany. I was very fortunate as I couldn’t then, and can’t now, foresee how I would break free from this terrible cycle. I’m simply being realistic when I say I had considered suicide. However, suicide doesn’t stop things getting worse, it merely guarantees they can never get better. I felt I wanted, not deserved you understand, something better so kept living, irrespective of what sacrifices were needed.
I’m not ashamed of fighting to stay alive. I did what I had to.
In the last few years, my life has of course changed beyond all recognition. I campaign for various causes but homelessness is unsurprisingly at the core.
The misconception that the vast majority of people on the streets are there by choice or addiction is inaccurate and insulting. Most of us are only a couple of paycheques away from severe difficulties. Forgo payments on your rent or mortgage and you’re facing the abyss. The normal coping method against this is simply to ignore it. This perhaps explains the common mentality towards those already on the streets. ‘It won’t happen to me’ is perhaps really ‘I don’t want to think about it as it very well could be me”
Last year I did some calculations based on the official figures. I worked out that it would take just 0.004% of the country’s GDP to bring all the empty and abandoned housing up to code to provide a secure home for everyone without one. If the first priority of an authority is the care of its citizenry, successive governments have been disgustingly derelict in their duty. These people may not have votes at present but provide them with somewhere to live and they’ll support you forever!
I endured a terrible (in every sense of the word) 3 years because it was the only option for me. This is a reality faced by so many every night. Their sex, religion, sexuality or colour simply doesn’t matter. They are fellow human beings that are allowed, in one of the richest countries in the world, to be treated like feral animals. I am saddened and horrified by that in the 21st century.
Every December 25th and on a few other nights throughout the year, I fill a few bags with food, water and warm socks. I go out onto the streets handing supplies out to anyone I can find who’d like them. A couple of years ago I did this on christmas morning in Covent Garden and was mortified. I emptied 2 large holdalls in 45 minutes and had to refill at a supermarket. There were literally hundreds of people in need and no-one else around to help. I saw no charities, no kitchens, nothing. At one point I was talking to a young man and his dog and 2 policemen from Charing Cross station came up and tried to move him along, completely ignoring me. I turned on them and gave them a piece of my mind telling them to learn some manners. The fact I was filming on my phone perhaps made them immediately reticent but it’s still a shameful example of how the strong in society abuse their positions against the weak. I had no response to the complaint I made to the station of course.
I can only do so much as an individual but, along with countless others who care, if I see someone in a doorway and there’s a shop nearby, I’ll pop in and buy a sandwich and just leave it by the person. Caring is right there in the name of our species, humankind. Every little anonymous act may be for my own benefit as much as theirs. I just can’t walk by with tears in my eyes so it’s a temporary way to assuage my liberal guilt. I’ve gone through a hell of a lot, and a lot of hell, but I certainly don’t deserve everything I’ve got now. Anything I can give back, I will.
Recently I’ve contacted every magazine, newspaper, broadcaster and production company I can think of, imploring them to let me do a piece on homelessness but haven’t had a single reply. There remains a pervading insistence that if the problem is ignored it will go away and simple not have existed in the first place. That is pathetic.
Tens of thousands of our fellow creatures will be sleeping on the streets tonight. Fine you might say, it’s warm so what’s the problem? That’s hardly the point or relevant for much of the year. Picture this. Tonight, perhaps a 14 year old boy thrown out for being gay, will sleep rough for the very first time. A child. Terrified, alone and punished for something natural he cannot change about himself faces the prospect of a night, a week or a life on the lowest rung. How can that not be of concern, or at least interest, to national media?
Please, I actually beg you. The next time you see someone huddled in a doorway, take a moment to consider the horrible journey that must have brought him or her there. This is not a normal life but it’s the only one in prospect for so many. Too many.
I was once that dirty, cold, scared mess being ignored by everyone wondering if this was the day I would be knifed, spat at or kicked. That is not a life any animal, let alone a human, should have to endure.
For the first 2 decades of my life, no-one ever cared for me or gave a damn whether I lived or died. Being told daily I was worthless, hateful and disgusting became an accepted routine. I refuse to believe that is remotely tolerable.
If I can do anything now to give that time value, it’s to help others but I can only go so far. I need those with national coverage to take notice and help in order to begin to change attitudes both in the population and government.
I won’t stop battling as it’s what I have to do. I just wish the tragedy of homelessness meant a little more to those who have the power to end it.