Two sides of a coin
Walking down any high street or wandering around any city from London to Liverpool after dark, the chances are you’ll see someone who doesn’t have anywhere to live. Whether they are crouched in a shop doorway or in the shadows of a badly lit side-street, you know their circumstances, but what do you understand about the lives they lead? How did they get there? What did they do before? What are they looking toward doing? In truth, between your umpteenth pint of £3.50 lager and hundredth vodka-based sour shot, you probably don’t care, and why should you? Simple, because that person could easily be you, not that you’ve even contemplated it, considered it, or that the thought has even entered your head, but it could. How do I know that? Because it happened to me.
I’m not what society would class as vulnerable, I’m not what the gormless liberal media portrays as the hapless and dysfunctional social underclass that floods the shelters, food banks and “sally armies”, adding to our benefit culture, what I am, (like every single other person whose lost that vital thing we all need to stabilise our lives, our home) is a person. There’s an innate sense of fear and phobia of the homeless, and it’s time the world opened its eyes, and looked behind the curtain of negligence that we all conveniently close to carry on living our happy lives, and saw the other side of the coin.
Following a successful school career, a happy household (let’s not go into that) and consistent employment, I was never happier than returning back to my hometown from University for the last time. An overwhelming sense of aspiration and achievement filled every part of my being. All the late nights boozing, pulling smart-price red bull all nighters to hit deadlines had led to this. I moved into my own place, and embarked on a career. Little did I know, the suburban bubble of latte’s and ‘cheeky pints’, I, like many others dwelled in so comfortably, was about to burst.
Debt is a word that sends shivers down the spine of anyone, the dystopic idea of owing someone money, and worse, not being able to repay it, is horrifying. And me, like millions of Britons, fell under the umbrella of being in debt. There is only one guarantee for someone trapped in the post-modern cycle of debt that is almost its own cyclical economy of detriment, and that is that it will get worse. As costs rise, sleep diminishes and your internal compass of self worth dives south, every fibre of your being becomes toxic. I never knew poverty, I never understood homelessness and I certainly never contemplated the idea of being what most people would consider down and out.
The cycle of debt is simple. You don’t have any money, so you borrow some; the increased cost of borrowing that money creates a gap in your income the month after which you need to fill to live, and so on, and so on... Pretty soon I was hiding this from everyone, removing myself from social circles and turning more and more to the solitude of my own, horribly bleak and dour company. And, as anybody who has been in any situation of this nature will tell you, when you stop communicating, relaying and sharing your problems, there’s nowhere to go but deeper into the spiral of self-loathing and panic that is symbolic of debt and poverty in the UK today.
Then it happens, ‘The straw the broke the camel’s back’, that one event, that single moment when everything you’ve been running from, pleading and parrying with to keep your already submerged head above water. For me, it was simple; I couldn’t afford the rent on my quaint, well maintained house with a gym I never bothered using. What most people don’t understand, and in essence, what society neglects to teach us, is that when you’ve lost everything, and all that lays ahead is a dark, rainy and cold abyss of nothingness and fear, the “stiff upper lip” and resilient attitude we British are so very proud of, does not put a roof over your head. Our reluctance to ask for help, our shameful frown we cast over the needy, and the frankly pig ignorant way that we all blindly stroll past those people in those doorways, in the shelters, in tents and boxes across the country makes us very naive. When you don’t understand homelessness, how do you deal with it? Short answer, you don’t.
Prize possessions and the material belongings I held dear stowed away safely, armed with a suitcase of clothes and most importantly, my phone charger (believe me, a phone is your greatest asset when homeless) and a can do attitude, I began a sofa-surfing mystery tour. Apart from having to lie and pretend to over 100 colleagues I was fine, not to mention my friends and family, simply to protect my own image, because, as we all do, I saw my homelessness as a plight on society. You never look at your situation, you never look for a means to an end; becoming so caught up in the shameful idea that I was less of a person, less worthy of my life, simply because I was homeless, life quickly deteriorated.
As I write this, from a new perspective, it seems quite pathetic of me to have been so ashamed of myself; it’s not like I was sleeping outside, in the cold, trying to find a drop of human kindness in a shower of ignorance, fuelled by centuries of social stigma and ostracism. I must foremostly thank my friends, for every sofa, air-bed, spare-room and floor that kept me dry, warm (mostly) and alive. Every game of ‘FIFA’, every cup of tea and text to see where I was sleeping that night. If it wasn’t for the few people with whom I shared my dark, debt-ridden secret, who kept this chipper 22 year old, going through those arduous weeks, who knows where I’d have been.
Alas, such is the way with everything in life; all good things must come to an end, and my county wide tour of sofa-surfing and balancing life and lies had to crumble. By this point, I was far more aware of the basic struggles that the roof over your head removes. Clean shirts, fresh socks, packed lunches, co-ordinated clothes and even three square meals, are all the domain of the home. I had fought through almost two months, and after my work deteriorated, and the ability to have a bed dried up completely, I hit rock bottom.
Homelessness, like debt, poverty or any other circumstance in life, is not terminal. In the modern world of developed, democratic society, homelessness, for most people, is not a death sentence. Of course, when you’re so entrapped in debt and so intensely concerned with where you’ll sleep that night, it’s hard to see that. For me though, it was one phone call that made it all apparent, and changed my life forever.
Sat charging my phone in a McDonalds at 8am, using the last of my change for a hot cup of tea, I made an appointment to meet someone at the council, who’d assess my case. The word ‘Sanctuary’ to most people is meaningless, but for me it meant everything. After a rather emotional meeting in a dreary council office, I’d been referred to a shelter. A BED, AN ACTUAL BED, FOR ME! Considering my main sleeping complaint in 21 years was that my king-sized bed was a little firm in places, the exhilarations and sheer relief I felt was indescribable.
Arriving at a converted house, perched on an idyllic river just a few moments from the train station I’d decided I’d probably have to sleep in that night, I was welcomed by a member of their support team, who made me a cup of tea and put me right at ease. It is paramount that you remove all preconceptions of homeless shelters, sanctuaries and safe-havens. In our mind we all think the same, and why wouldn’t we? It’s the people you walk past in those dark alleys, down those parks and in those doorways, but in a larger volume. Guilty as charged, I subscribed to stigma of addicts, thieves, criminals and ne’er-do-wells all fighting for the last soup roll. But mark my word, wherever you read this: You, I, society in general, will never fully understand kindness and the true meaning of support until a hand reaches out and pulls you from the brink of utter self-destruction.
The Sanctuary, the shelter than took me in, is a 16 bed centre for support and action for the homeless. Paid staff and volunteers work around the clock to provide more than just a roof for those in need. From three well prepared healthy meals a day, to housing support, employment management services and regular sessions to just talk and express your current train of thought, this building is a foundation from which people, whom society may have neglected, can kick-start a new life and return back to the stable normality so many take for granted. There will be those who say that it’s ‘a job’ and that ‘it’s what they are paid to do’, but at no point has it ever seemed as though the motive for the people who run this centre, is money, chiefly because woeful underfunding and austerity means that there’s pretty much isn’t any. These people live to help, and they don’t see the black and white of homelessness we all take for granted. They see an opportunity, to revive the once vibrant and interesting lives of all those inside.
It goes without saying that drugs, alcohol and every other vice can be ruination and root cause for being in the Sanctuary, but I, like many others, was hung up on the situation behind the person, not vice versa. Plumbers, bus drivers, barmen, graduates, caterers, dads, uncles and so on, all in the same boat, the difference being that we now had a paddle to make it through the choppy uncertainty we all faced, towards a new start.
As it sit here, amongst new friends, a slightly dysfunctional family with a bed time of 12, writing this, I become ever more frustrated with society. If it wasn’t for places like this, and the friendly and outgoing nature of the staff and residents that fill the hollow walls between us and the cold dark of the street, life would be a damn site bleaker. It’s time we wake up to the truth that in a housing crisis, with a sky-high cost of living and an ever increasing class divide, we must invest time in charity, and invest time in people. It’s a cliché but, a problem shared is a problem halved, and if we all took our share of the load, and looked out for those around us, just like I’ve seen here, homelessness, and the insurmountable loneliness attached to it, would be non- existent. My entire perspective of life has been turned upside down, shaken into submission. And now, with drive and determination restored, I’m about embark on the journey of building my life again, did I do it alone? No, could I have? No. Sometimes we need to look past our preconceptions and simply hold out a hand. After all, sometimes the greatest act of charity and kindness is simply kindness itself.