In early 2001 I was made redundant from a job in IT and whilst unsuccessfully looking for employment, a friend suggested to keep myself busy I do some voluntary work.
I trundled down to the local Volunteer Bureau in Mitcham and came away with some phone numbers of various diverse projects looking for helpers. The first two went to answer-phone. My third call was to a place called the Spires, it was listed as a Day Centre for 'Homeless & Disadvantaged People' in Streatham and they were looking for someone to help with their music project. The phone answered and before I knew it, I'd visited, been interviewed and had signed up as a volunteer.
Funny how the cards fall, but this simple set of circumstances was going to have a major effect on me and off I headed down this new and unknown road. Prior to my involvement with the Spires, I'd never given much thought to the homeless and those who live on the edge of our structured society. In fact, whenever I saw a rough sleeper type on the street, I'd feel a little uncomfortable and threatened.
Initially, I felt uneasy and probably a little shy with the service users and either hid behind a guitar, or busied myself doing practical stuff.
Cleaning blocked loos and the kitchen, running the toast machine & potato peeler, sorting the vans full of tins that were donated. I'd do anything to keep away from the people that the project was there to support.
This gradually changed and I used to take one of the giant teapots on walkabout in the main hall, constantly replenishing empty mugs and chatting about all sorts of stuff. In the early days I would sit and talk with those that I'd got to know through the music group, but before long I was comfortable with anyone and felt very much at home in my role.
After a few months and having comprehensively failed to find new employment in an IT environment, I applied and got a full-time post on the Spires staff.
I left the Spires in August 2002, as I'd decided it was time to leave the smoke behind and head for East Sussex, but my new career path was settled. I visited the project in November 2011, to join in an evening celebration for their 25th
Birthday and thoroughly enjoyed catching up with old colleagues and being nostalgic. The reality though, is it's a tough world for projects like the Spires, as they continually chase funding and then jump through hoops to meet the stringent demands placed on them by their funders.
Over the following years, I would work in two other Day Centres, build a new career and take on various management roles. This involved me becoming both more professional and learning about the realities of running these projects. By nature, this career development removed me from the front line and it was sometimes easy to lose sight of the big issues. When jaundice and or cynicism hits, I like to look back at my time at Spires through my rose tinted shades.
Homelessness - Drug & Alcohol
After leaving London, I got a job delivering supported housing for a Brighton based Housing Association. As part of this post I ran a new project, housing people with a history of what was called 'substance misuse lifestyle'
. I was thrown into the world of supporting individuals with drug & alcohol issues and working with the complex myriad of agencies that delivered services for these people.
In April 2003 I went to work in a 'Wet Day Centre' for street drinkers in Brighton. The basic premise was that homeless street drinkers, who had been banned by Brighton Council from drinking alcohol on the street, could attend the centre and drink safely in the 'wet room'. A fundamental principal of any day centre is that it is a 'safe space'.
We would work with the clients to help address their issues. Key amongst these were: housing; physical & mental health concerns; rehab and benefit problems. It was often a futile battle trying to get accommodation, as current housing law does not give a 'Priority Need'
to single individuals over 18.
The chaotic nature of many of those who used the service, meant that successful outcomes were few and far between. We endeavoured to offer the clients respect, time and a human face in a world where they are both marginalised and vilified by many in society.
The brutal stats from my 18 months at Equinox, was 12 clients who I'd got to know, died. Joe's (pictured above in red top) catchphrase was 'It's all good Chris'. He was a nice guy, an ex-soldier, hugely proud and independent and a daily feature of the wet room. Despite the best endeavours of the service, Joe remained homeless and was attacked on the street and died from his injuries. Michael (sitting between my colleague Jackie and I) died from alcohol related issues in a homeless hostel.
I could recount attending Coroner inquiries and various funerals - meeting confused and sad families, who had so many questions, whilst I had no real answers. It was after the death on the street of a guy called Paul, and then meeting his family at his funeral that my total lack of any answers really hit me. I wrote a song about Paul, it features on my album, Me and my Martin
. I made a video of the song for You Tube
After Equinox, I had a brief sojourn at another day centre before moving into Local Government (LG) and working for six years as a 'middle manager'
in Eastbourne's housing department. By this time, I'd virtually left all client facing work behind, and would generally only see members of the public, if they were making complaints about our service.
Council housing services manage a limited resource and are under constant pressure from the public and a multitude of other agencies to house people.
This leads to what is called 'Gate Keeping', a practice that is vehemently denied by LG. It's a simple fact that if demand exceeds supply, then someone will be left out in the cold. The problem then, is how you prioritise your resources?
Homelessness - The Big Issue
For me, the big issue is why do people become homeless and what a so called civilised society can do to tackle this? The key causes are quite easy to identify, it's how to address them that we've failed to answer. I've worked in various services where we've stuck sticking plasters on the problem, and this can be good for an individual, but it really doesn't start to tackle the bigger picture.
Over the years, I've worked with most of the main agencies that are tasked with addressing homelessness. Rough Sleepers can often be seen, although many are hidden from view and there is frequently confusion between 'Street Drinkers' and 'Rough Sleepers'. Not all street drinkers are rough sleepers, although, plenty would come under the category of 'Sofa Surfers'.
Rough Sleeping: In January 2009 I took part in an event arranged by the local Salvation Army. We slept rough outside Eastbourne railway station. The event was organised to raise awareness of rough sleeping and along with various people from the Salvation Army and a couple of local Councillors, I bedded down for a cold night.
My lightweight sleeping bag wasn't man enough for outside in January and a bit of cardboard on the pavement was no substitute for my mattress. It was a small, but real insight into the realities of sleeping rough, though unlike real rough sleepers we weren't under any threats (police, public, other rough sleepers etc) and we had the comfort of a home to look forward to.
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At 6:00am I crawled out of my bag, cold and stiff and tried to straighten myself and creaked my way down to McDonalds (the only place in town that was open at this early hour). I sat by the window in a padded chair, trying to warm myself with coffee, whilst watching the early starters trudge by on their way to work. That night, I really appreciated the warmth, comfort and safety of my own bed.
Rough Sleeper Counts: I've done a few of these over the year and the info collected feeds into the government stats, quoted in the media whenever the subject of rough sleeping is reported. The reality of doing these counts and the rules laid down by government for collecting this data, means that official figures are at best on the low side and in many cases a complete nonsense.
Sofa Surfing: The great unknown figure - There is no real stats on the number of people who do not have their own accommodation, but are not visibly sleeping rough. Insecurely housed, crashing with friends or family, short term relationships, unwelcome guests etc - This is a vast number and a subject that is generally ignored by government and often brushed under the carpet.
Dual Diagnosis Many homeless people would by categorised under the dual diagnosis banner. It often refers to mental health issues along with drug and/or alcohol dependency. The problem here is, which do you treat first and who delivers that treatment. The main agencies often use this as justification to not work with an individual, leaving them out in the cold.
Mental Health services can buck pass and say that they can't work with someone, until their drug and/or alcohol issues have been addressed, whilst drug & alcohol services can refuse to work with people due to risk factors around behaviour and mental health concerns. And Housing Services can use their legislation to deliver 'No Priority Need' and or 'Intentionally Homeless' decisions and therefore not offer housing.
For me, a key problem is that different agencies work to their own priorities, apply conflicting legislation and they struggle to work in a joined up way for the better good of the individual.
This pages is about one man's journey, his considered views and observations. CJM