Street Wise: how a homeless teenager became Birmingham’s ambassador for rough sleepers

Sharon Thompson has never forgotten the fear she experienced sleeping rough.

That is why she has made it her business to speak up for those still out in the cold.

She speaks warmly of the way homeless people look out for each other.

She understands why it is so hard for some of them to escape the street.

But she still suggests you think twice before giving them any money.

Councillor Thompson’s brush with the streets opened her eyes to the plight of the homeless in a way no amount of activism could ever have done.

Today, she serves as Birmingham City Council’s ambassador for homelessness and rough sleeping.

Before she was first elected to the Council in 2014, she made a pledge to a number of rough sleepers.

“I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to change things,” she told them. “But I promise you I will try to get your voices heard.”

Her ambassador’s role advising the Council’s cabinet means she is well placed to do just that.

“Some rough sleepers don’t want to be found.”

Part of tackling the problem is getting an idea of its scale. So, together with cities across the country, Birmingham did its 2017 count for rough sleepers on a cold night last November.

From 11:00 pm to five in the morning, more than 50 volunteers and council workers checked the streets and underpasses.

From just nine in 2010, the numbers for 2017 were up to 57 — and the true figure is certainly higher, she says.

Some abandoned buildings were just not safe for the Council team to check — and in any case, she adds: “Some rough sleepers don’t want to be found.”

Thompson reckons the true figure for rough sleepers in Birmingham is more than a hundred.

Add to that the hidden homeless — the couch-surfers sleeping in friends’ living room, for example — and numbers climb even higher.

Source: Housing ministry data

Sharon Thompson became homeless when she was just 16 and about to start college.

Relations broke down at home and one day she found all her possessions packed up in black bags, ready for removal.

“I was scared. I was cold. I was just beside myself.”

At first she managed by staying at a friend’s house.

But her friend had a husband, two young sons, a baby — and her brother, who was also homeless.

She remember how she slept on the bottom of a bunk bed, while the two boys, five and six, slept above her. Her friend’s brother was left with the sofa.

“We lived like this for a good couple of months and then obviously it was it was too much of a situation,” she said. She and the brother moved out.

And while she managed to get a place in a hostel for young people, it did not last.

“I didn’t stick to the rules,” she admits. “I found myself out of the project.”

That was when she found herself sleeping in one of the city’s many pedestrian underpasses.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” she recalls.

“My eyes were completely open, absolutely terrified. I was scared, I was cold, I was just beside myself. I was an emotional wreck.

“It was the most horrific thing ever, and it made me look at rough sleepers completely differently.”

In more than six months of homelessness she only spent that one night sleeping rough. But it was enough.

Thompson is 38 now, that experience long behind her. But it still shapes her work as a councillor.

“I was there because I genuinely had nowhere to go.”

Source: Housing ministry data

When she first ran for office, she spent time getting to know homeless people.

She was struck by how they looked after each other — and her, when some of the more difficult members of the community turned up.

“You could see the body language changing,” she recalls. “They wanted to protect me.

“It was like: ‘Come on Shaz, you need to go. We’ll walk you down.’”

Anonymous among them in her jeans and hoodie, she also saw how the agencies assigned to help the homeless operated.

“When services work well they’re great,” she says. But when they don’t, “…they’re horrendous.”

She recalls one time when a homeless man was trying to warn police about someone sniffing gas in a public square, near families and their children.

The officers were more concerned about whether or not he was drunk.

“We need to understand that this is a community and that those in the homeless community do look out for each other.”

So when she took up her ambassador’s role, she had a simple message for the council’s officers: they had to work harder at winning the trust of people on the street.

“If you can get yourself on the inside, you can better understand them and better build programmes around them.”

And the Council listened, she says.

“I’m proud to say that the council over the last year has gone through an entire systems change of how we deal with homelessness.”

“The thought of going into a hostel where you’ve got rules…they can’t cope with that kind of structure”

The Council accepted that there was a hard core of homeless people who, for whatever reason, would never seek out their help.

“The thought of going into a hostel where you’ve got rules — ‘You know you can’t smoke this in here’ — they can’t cope with that kind of structure,” says Thompson.

So last year, a new Street Intervention Team began taking the services out to them.

They work on the streets five days a week, building relationships with the people there.

“They are there to engage and become a part, more or less, of that community so they become trusted,” says Thompson.

The team includes health professionals, police officers and a local housing organisation.

“When it first got launched they actually said to me, you know, ‘What would the goal be?’”

She identified one woman she knew, telling them: “‘If you can get her off the street that’s when I know you’ve been successful, because she’s been out here for such a long time…’

“I expected them to manage it probably in about two years’ time — they did it in less than five months.”

“Sharon has played a crucial role,” says Thompson’s colleague Councillor John Cotton, who chairs the Health and Social Care committee.

Her experience of homelessness combined with her political skills had been invaluable to the new initiative.

“She commands respect across the Council’s politicians, the officer corps and amongst our partners.”

As to what ordinary people can do to help, Thompson’s answer is perhaps surprising.

“I advise against giving money to rough sleepers.”

She knows this is “sort of a Marmite one” — that not everyone will agree with her.

“But my starting point is always, if I give this person two pounds — you can buy Black Mamba for that amount of money.”

Black Mamba, or Spice, is a synthetic but particularly potent form of cannabis.

“You could have given the person the two pounds that is going to end their life tonight,” she says.

“I know it sounds very harsh and very stark, but the reality of it is … some of the rough sleepers that have passed away, I’ve known them.”

She cites the case of Damian Dineen, a homeless man who died in April 2017 in Birmingham City Centre.

“Damian died because of Black Mamba — and it’s cheap on the streets.”

An inquest found that Dineen, 32, had significant levels of both alcohol and “Mamba” in his bloodstream when he died.

So if you want to give someone on the streets a coffee and a sandwich, that’s fine, says Thompson.

But you might also want to tip off local officials that they are out there.

In England and Wales, there is StreetLink, a dedicated website and app for just this purpose (though the complaints on the app’s page suggest there is room for improvement).

Streetlink is designed to connect rough sleepers to local services

It is not about policing the homeless, says Thompson: the council just needs to know where they are.

“If we’ve got limited resources, we want to deploy them in the right places.”

And there is one more thing you can do, she says.

She remembers how it felt to be sitting there, anonymous, as people walked by.

“A ‘Hello’ wouldn’t go amiss,” says Thompson. “It doesn’t cost much to say hello.

“Nobody likes to ignored.”

Graphics via Infogram and The Noun Project. The Streetlink presentation is a Google slideshow converted into a GIF via Tall Tweets.

Also in this series:

1 The Big Issue: a hand up from the streets For many, selling the magazine has been a first step towards regaining control of their lives

2 Michael’s Story Michael, 27, lost everything after his father died. The Big Issue helped him find his way back.

3 Street Wise: As a teenager, she slept rough on Birmingham’s streets. Today, she speaks up for the city’s homeless — and some of her views might surprise you.

4 How you can help: You want to help Birmingham’s homeless? A few ideas…

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