The Cold Bleak Streets

When you hear Russell Brand decry the fact that the five richest families in the UK have more money than the poorest 12 million people combined, does that bother you? When you weave through the bustling crowds of a city centre and have to avoid trampling on a street beggar, or the fact that the most privileged in our society are now installing anti-homeless spikes in doorways to deny the most desperate people a shelter for the night — a tactic used against pigeons — does that bother you? It all depends on your world-view and your own prejudices — of course.

These are symptoms of social inequality which, by all accounts, is on the increase. For a few years now headlines have been trotted out that describe a ‘gap between the rich and the poor approaching levels not seen since the Victorian era. One of the tangible signs of a society struggling with an unfair distribution of wealth is an increase on a macroscale of people finding themselves homeless. But taking a closer look at the reasons why people find themselves without a home are often varied, and closer to happening to many of us than you may realise.

“Across the board, it has always been a relationship breakdown that has been the key factor”

The Whitechapel Centre is Liverpool’s leading charity that helps the homeless. Working closely with the city council and relying on donations, they care for people across Merseyside who are sleeping rough, living in hostels or struggling to maintain their accommodation — and they are telling us that homelessness is on the rise across the city.

“We’re seeing more people coming through our doors,” says Ruth McCaughley, the fundraising manager at the centre. “The number of people that sleep rough in Liverpool is actually quite small, actually it is less than 20 a night. But that’s because we offer a service that prevents people from having to sleep rough.”

Whitechapel’s latest figures illustrate this increase in the use of its services — up 32% — in the last two years. Ruth indicates just how big the rough sleeping problem may be without the centre’s services. “You don’t really know how people’s paths would go if we weren’t here, but I mean if you look at the No Second Night Out campaign where we’re having sort of 400–500 people a year who would sleep rough that night if we didn’t go out and help them. So, that’s quite a substantial number that you can see we are getting off the street.”

The primary cause of homelessness is not alcohol or drug misuse, or even the Bedroom Tax. “Across the board, it has always been a relationship breakdown that has been the key factor — the one in which somebody actually gets kicked out of their home or asked to leave their girlfriend’s flat or whatever, and they just have no money and nowhere to stay the night,” says Ruth.

It is at the point of becoming homeless that for many the real drink and drug problems begin. “There is a recent study that has revealed that it only takes 7–10 days to get accustomed to living on the street and then it becomes really hard for us to get people off the streets. What we want to do is not get them into the place where they’re going to be introduced to drugs and alcohol because quite often it actually happens on the streets as opposed to beforehand,” she explains.

According to Shelter, the number of households found to be homeless in England increased by 5% in 2012/13 and 90,000 children in Britain face this Christmas in temporary accommodation or some grotty B&B. But the demographic that gets hit the hardest is men aged between 20 to 44 with as high as 84% male homelessness nationally, as significant a gender divide as suicide rates, of which 77% of all are male.

“To go from having it all together to it spiraling out of control; there is a major reluctance to ask for help”

Simon Howes, CALM Development Co-ordinator for Merseyside, a charity which aims at bringing the suicide rate in men down, says this all ties into a bigger issue as a society of how we see men and women.

“If a woman is made homeless immediately there is a level of empathy and compassion,” he explains. “When we see a homeless man we quickly have our own kind of prejudices — they’ve probably been kicked out because they’ve been an idiot, they couldn’t hold down a job, or they’ve been drinking too much. We know that girls have greater support networks generally and I think often men can find themselves in a situation of homelessness a lot quicker.”

Men then also face a battle with their pride when everything begins to fall apart. “We still have this idea that blokes should essentially be alpha males, they should have everything together, they should take it on the chin, they should be able to provide, they should be able to earn, they should be able to hold down a job, they should be able to do everything; so when that doesn’t work it’s a long way to fall,” he explains.

“To go from having it all together to it spiraling out of control; there is a major reluctance to ask for help, heavily influenced by the shame they feel and we all play a part in creating that shame,” Simon somberly states.

Seel Street in the Ropewalks area of the city centre is the location of a missionary operated by nuns, it provides shelter and a daily drop-in kitchen for those sleeping rough. For that reason, a lot of homeless can be found in the area. On a walk around I spot Lee and Luke, as they walk up the street checking the change compartments of each car-parking machine they pass. Lee is long-term homeless and welcomes the opportunity to tell somebody his story.

“Right next door to the Maccies there’s a cage. That’s where I sleep”

He describes to me an abusive childhood that led straight to foster care at 12; but it was when the drug taking in his teens began that he found himself homeless. A descent into a personal hell began which landed him in prison.

“After that, I got let out, come back on the bleeding streets, back to square one, taking drugs again,” he says.

But, like so many others, it is the drink that grips and rattles him now. A poison he says is harder to kick than smack. He reels off the names of those he has known on the street who have passed away, counting with each finger. He needs to use both hands. “All lost to drink,” he says as his mate Luke blesses their names, stood by his side with a can of Special Brew in hand.

According to recent figures, the average life expectancy of homeless people is a shocking one: they will die in their 40s. Lee is approaching this age range and a life on the streets has already taken a toll on his body. “I’ve had brain surgery, two operations on one leg, and a titanium rod in the other one,“ he says — exhibiting each scarred limb.

It’s late November and the cold weather is starting to really bite. I ask Lee where he will be sheltering for the night? “You know the Adelphi hotel?” he asks. “Cross over and there’s a Maccies there isn’t there. Right next door to the Maccies there’s a cage. That’s where I sleep.”

“Some people, if they seen you sleeping rough on a Friday night, they would come and kick you in the head”

Brian — who I meet at The Whitechapel Centre where he now volunteers — has escaped from the vicious cycle of homelessness, sleeping rough, and alcoholism after the centre saved him when he was on his “last legs”. As is most common it was a split with his partner that first forced him into hostels before his drink demons would see him kicked out of each and every one until the only place left to sleep was on the streets.

“I’ve slept in bin sheds at the Royal [Liverpool Hospital], I’ve slept at St. Luke’s [Bombed Out Church], I’ve slept at quite a lot of places,” he tells me in a softly spoken Manc accent. With a face that tells it’s own story, a chunk of his left ear missing — life has obviously been hard on Brian.

“Some people, if they seen you sleeping rough on a Friday night, they would come and kick you in the head,” he recalls. “Drink comes after it, really. To make you go to sleep when you’re in St. Luke’s Church or something. You have a drink to get to sleep.”

Describing himself as “still a work in progress” but “settled and feeling positive,” his story offers some hope where it can be hard to see on the cold bleak streets. With the help of organisations like Whitechapel, things can be turned around when all looks lost.

Earlier this year, figures from a national review of homelessness by the charity Crisis estimated that the number of people sleeping out across England to be 2,414, representing a 37% increase since 2010. And although Liverpool is seeing an increase like most places, the situation is not as severe as down the motorway in Manchester, where statistics suggest the numbers are about five times higher and there is a major shortage of shelters.

On the other side of the coin is a hidden homeless problem. A group of people the charities never make contact with, people who are sofa surfing, moving from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation and no place to call their own. Potentially tomorrow’s rough sleepers. Due to generally stronger maintained social ties than men, it is believed that women tend to occupy a larger hidden homeless status.

It is an existence that hovers over more than eight million people who are only one payday away from not being able to pay their mortgage or rent. “I think people realise that actually they’re not far away from potentially being homeless. How many mortgage payments or rent payments have you got saved up if you lose your job? Which can happen very easily. How secure are you and for how long?” Asks Ruth.

For the people who remain ignorant to that reality — many among a generation so spoiled they will fight in supermarket aisles to save a few quid on a Black Friday deal — there is also an enormous amount of understanding and good-will to counter the negative attitudes towards homelessness. In October, over 100 people — many of who were young — turned up for the Liverpool Sleepout fundraiser, spending a night on the streets in support of The Whitechapel Centre.

Brian, who has seen at first-hand the worst side of society, was there to help out.

“It was nice to see people giving up their Friday night after they’d been in work all week. You don’t realise that people care so much. And they obviously do,” he says. “Everybody was dead positive and positivity breeds positivity, doesn’t it?”

No second Night Out: Have you seen someone sleeping rough? Tell The Whitechapel Centre about a rough sleeper on 0300 123 2041

Photo by Mike Brits

Originally published at

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