Keith Barber gives a personal account of his time living on the streets of Walthamstow
I became homeless in 2014, when my landlady had to repossess her property for major repairs, and myself, my brother, and my sister, had to go our separate ways.
My own situation was exacerbated by a police investigation and unemployment, and this made for uncertain times. Only after my subsequent court case, and sentencing, was the situation clearer.
I found that the worst of it was trying to find shelter, with shop doorways and train station platforms barricaded by security and inaccessible.
I was able to use a night shelter and this at least provided the warmth of a night in a church hall, and a sleeping bag and sleeping mat were not too uncomfortable. It was certainly a more favourable option than the street in the wind, rain and bitterly cold in the winter, but the night shelter doesn’t operate in summer.
In 2015 I was temporarily housed by a church, but the project ran into issues with the council and was later abandoned; a friend helped me out for a few weeks, but it was only temporarily.
Between leaving my friend’s flat, and the new night shelter season, I spent some nights in a police station foyer. I later slept in a church doorway, until my flat became available and my situation improved.
Compared to the help available for families, there is precious little help available for single people and couples because they don’t have the same protection in housing law as families, unless they have certain support needs. The council has a duty of care, but a large proportion of single homeless people get turned away as ‘non priority’ and are left to fend for themselves.
Organisations and charities do exist to provide some relief for homeless people, such as day centres, soup kitchens, and other faith groups that provide food and services such as free haircuts and clothing donations, especially at weekends.
The day centres can provide many things such as showers, laundry facilities, referrals to mental health, drug or alcohol addiction counselling, arranging doctor’s surgery registrations, providing a ‘care of’ address, and helping benefits applications.
I found that as well as the lack of shelter, many homeless people suffer from a lack of access to the most basic needs, such as a toilet. Imagine waking up at 3.30am Sunday morning when you need to go; ordinarily you’d visit the bathroom and return to bed, but that is not an option for homeless people. Either they endure an uncomfortable wait until somewhere with facilities opens, or they have a ‘dirty’ alternative. During the day shopping centres, libraries, and bus stations may have facilities, but at night, it’s much harder.
There also isn’t a chance to wash, let alone change clothing, for several days at a time. Homeless people don’t choose to be smelly, it is forced on them.
It is actually a criminal offence to sleep on the street, so potentially, you can be arrested for trying to simply rest. It didn’t happen to me, but homeless people are prone to attack, physical and verbal abuse, by ignorant and bigoted idiots.
They can be subject to insulting remarks when trying to get 5p from somebody so they can at least get a cup of tea from a shop. They have 95p, but the shop charges £1 and the beggar just can’t get that final 5p and is really thirsty or hungry. And no, it is not all spent on alcohol and drugs, as some assume.
These are just some of the issues, but it must be said that many people do turn their lives around and get themselves sorted by being housed and gaining employment, often with the help of local organisations. Sadly some do just sink into an abyss of despair and hopelessness, and become resigned to their situation.
I avoided the worst of being homeless thanks to the organisations that helped me and stopped me from being totally destitute, but it’s been an unpleasant, arduous journey. I have sailed stormy waters but thankfully landed safely on shore.
There have been many heartbreaking, haunting, harrowing tales of homelessness and even the most resolute thick-skinned people can lose a grip and dignity. But there can be happy endings as well.