A constituent of mine called Jamie was kicked out of his family home
when he was 13. He spent a year sleeping rough and after a chequered
adolescence he’s now grown up and is married with kids. Jamie will tell
you that it was his wife that turned him around by giving him an
ultimatum which revolved around continuing his substance abuse or
losing her. Fortunately he made the right choice, so when he offered to
spend one more night sleeping rough on the streets of London, my first
response was to check with his wife. It turned out that she had
encouraged Jamie to offer his assistance and I’m pleased she did,
because he turned out to be a tremendous help.
That in a civilised society anyone, let alone young people, should live
without a permanent roof over their heads seems self-evidently wrong.
But what to do about the problem is of course far more complex. A good
starting point is to understand the scale of the problem. And frankly
the figures are alarming.
For me it started with a set of Government stats which only recognise
498 rough sleepers throughout the country. On investigating I
discovered a flaw in the data-collection system. A form returned by
Local Authorities requires ‘bracketed’ responses. If the 0-to-10 Rough
Sleepers In Our Area box is ticked, then the Government counts it as
Zero every time. And a re-analysis of the same data in my ‘Roughly
Sleeping’ report revealed that the true number of those sleeping on our
pavements and parks is likely to be nearer 1,300 each night.
Or how about this?
According to official data there are 130,000 homeless children in England this Christmas. That’s more than twice the number of ten years ago and it’s one of the main conclusions in a second report I published called ‘There’s No Place Like Home’.
It’s all shocking stuff, but the trouble with writing reports is that, frankly, no one’s listening!
And it was with this point in mind I took to the streets on Christmas Eve to find out what a night surviving on a central London pavement really meant.
During the day Jamie and I went to meet long-term rough sleepers who are thankfully now in hostels. Their stories were along these lines. Having fallen out with their families and saddled with debt, these residents had ended up on the streets. Eventually they were rescued by one of the many truly excellent homeless charities that operate in this country.
Ivan, now 54, had spent a full twenty years sleeping rough until he was eventually persuaded to accept an offer of shelter by Thames Reach, a particularly pro-active London-based homeless charity who ran the Lisson Grove hostel that we were visiting.
After a few hours at another hostel in Waterloo which specialises in helping residents with drug and alcohol addictions, we made our way to Victoria to bed-down.
Now I’m not homeless and I never have been. I hope I never will be. So the obvious dilemma for an MP trying to understand what it’s really like to survive without a roof over his head is whether or not to invite the media along. Include the media and it will be called a stunt. Exclude the media and I might as well write about this in another one of those well –meaning, but largely ignored, reports. If sleeping rough was going to do anything to focus minds on the scale of the homeless challenge, then it would need to include press, who would be asked to leave once we were bedded-down.
Jamie confirmed what I’d heard. It’s not the cold that will necessarily kill you, it’s the damp. So we’d sought out a car park location which, though outside, was partially covered. But in an indication of the challenges faced by those living on our streets, within minutes of our turning up, the 24 hour security guard on the site had already moved us on.
Our bed was to be a small square of pavement probably 10’ by 10’. Stick your sleeping bag out too far and passers-by might tread on your toes.
Fortunately it was Christmas Eve and the streets were relatively quiet, but of the dozen people who walked along Allington Street before midnight 9 were rough sleepers. Most of them spoke to us and two, Kevin and Darren, arrived together.
Kevin is in his mid-fifties, he’s married with 6 kids back at home in Glasgow. He speaks to his wife most days and today she’s pleaded with him to return home. She would even pay for the rail ticket on her credit card but his drug and alcohol addictions were preventing him from doing what to an outsider seemed like a no-brainer. As a result Kevin has remained on the streets for years. He lives in an underpass in what he boasts is his upmarket Park Lane postcode and last week he met Darren.
Now usually long-term rough sleepers look older than they really are. The cruelness of outdoor elements often accompanied by substance abuse and always by poor diet, takes its toll, but somehow 32 year old Darren still looked boyish.
Darren’s desperate to see his mum for the first time in 14 years and he thought she might be in Devon, but doesn’t really know. He convinced the BBC crew to let him do an appeal to camera, which they filmed, but the footage was never shown.
He reported, with considerable relief, that his father was dead.
At the age of six his Dad raped him for the first time. By seven his father, apparently a known paedophile, was marketing Darren as a child prostitute to other men and was earning good money out of his gut-wrenchingly sickening activity.
‘How anyone could be so depraved towards a young child, his own child’, I thought as I tried to digest the story feeling ever more protective of my own six year old son asleep at home.
A street alcoholic, Darren’s own story was interrupted by him darting off to throw up, before returning to apologise for his behaviour and then continuing to drink. My constituent Jamie pointed out how impressive it was that Darren had somehow avoided becoming a drug addict as well.
He was right.
I made a couple of emergency calls to Thames Reach who strongly recommended that Kevin and Darren made their way to the Crisis emergency centre using a free bus which was running from outside the Apollo Theatre in Victoria.
Neither of them wanted to go to Crisis. Kevin reckoned that he’d been down that route before. And one of the truths of long-term rough sleeping was reiterated through my attempts to persuade them to seek help from Crisis. Just as with twenty-years-on-the-street Ivan, who I’d met earlier in the day, it’s not so much that services are unavailable, though more would of course be welcome, it’s that making the transition from living on the pavement to living back within society means trusting a lot of people along the way. But homelessness and rough sleeping in particular usually occur following a massive breakdown in human relationships and trusting anyone again may be more difficult than actually living on the street.
By the early hours we finally persuaded Kevin and Darren to go to the Crisis centre for help. I wanted to know how they got on so I reached into the back pocket of my jeans and found a card to scribble down my mobile number. I had scrawled it on the reverse of a Parliamentary business card with that smart green-embossed portcullis logo on the front. They were delighted to receive the card, but I’m sad to say that so far I haven’t received their update phone call and I’m increasingly concerned that they simply returned to their smart Park Lane subway where their lives will continue at the bottom of the pile and completely unchanged.
Mentally exhausted, by now I was desperate to go to sleep and yet at the same time, desperate to stay awake. The sense of vulnerability as you lie, wrapped against the elements, on a pavement is enough to make you look up whenever the wind blows a piece of cardboard across the street. Eventually I sleep, to be woken every 30 minutes by some minor disturbance before drifting off again until finally, I enter a deeper sleep which is aided by a soothing rhythmic pitter-patter on the sleeping bag pulled right up over my ears. Suddenly I awake to the realisation that the peaceful rhythm is rain.
Soaked to the skin, I check the time and am relieved to discover that it’s morning and for me this perfect nightmare is over.
By 7.10am I’m in BBC Television Centre starting off a series of interviews to talk about what it was like to sleep rough on Christmas Eve.
“Wasn’t this just a stunt” asks a reporter.
“Of course”, I replied, “For one thing I’m not a homeless person. But right this minute when I say that the number of homeless children in this country has doubled in the past decade to a staggering 130,000, your audience is finally able to hear about this crisis and it wasn’t because I sat behind a desk and wrote yet another report which was never read.
“Thank you so much for having me on.”