Monday, 13 April 2020

Coronavirus - Worse for the Homeless

It stands to reason; obviously the coronavirus epidemic must be worse for homeless people. Nowhere to live, no money and no food. It's practically impossible to practice social distancing, and now there is nobody on the street, there is no way to support yourself.

There has been a lot of talk on social media about the policy of housing homeless people in hotels during the epidemic. There's a Guardian article about the policy which makes interesting reading. I don't know if it's happened but it's obviously a good idea. However, most of the talk was along the lines of "look, homelessness can be fixed if there's the political will and money to do it". Whilst that may in theory be true, all I can say is, if you think that homelessness is fixed by putting people up in hotels for a while then you have no idea what it's like to be homeless.

I was homeless. I never actually slept on the street - living in a small community means that there are always people willing to help - but I slept on a lot of sofas and was put up in a bed and breakfast for a couple of weeks at one point. I ended up living in a caravan in an abandoned quarry. In fact, I lived there for years, even after I'd got a job and was financially very much stable. I just wasn't ready to become 'normal' again.

Why was I homeless? Was I useless with money? A hopeless drug addict? Well, there are a lot of reasons why people become homeless, but for me it was watching my best mate Rob die in a ditch in front of me when he was 23. He was the victim of a motorcycle accident - he had done nothing wrong but we as 'dirty bikers' were vilified for it in the local press. Being interrogated at the police headquarters didn't help, and neither did the subsequent inquest, both of which I had no choice but to attend despite not actually being involved.

All that left me in a delicate emotional state. But I'd been renting a room in Rob's house as well. When his grandparents asked me to leave so that they could sell the house I had nowhere to go, and was in no fit state to work out how to solve the problem. The social security had visited me unannounced to make sure that I wasn't using Rob's death to defraud the benefits system (I wasn't) and then sent me on a 'training' scheme, apparently as punishment. In the middle of all this I found myself out of my home with nowhere to go. Luckily a friend offered me the caravan, which he had put there after being in a similar situation himself. It had been vandalised, the ceiling leaked and some of the windows were boarded over, but I couldn't have been happier. It was that or a doorway or maybe a tent.

A hotel room wouldn't have fixed any of that. Homelessness is much more complicated than somewhere to sleep. It's domestic abuse, addiction, mental illness, financial insecurity, relationship breakdown. It's hitting rock bottom after multiple missed opportunities to help. In my situation, what if the police had asked if I was OK, rather than treating me as a criminal? What if the social security had involved the social services instead of accusing me of a bizarre fraud? What if the people running the training scheme had intervened? In fact, one of them did, informally, and that's how I ultimately got out of that particular hole.

In the end, I got a good job, was finally persuaded to buy a house and moved out of the quarry. Now, over 30 years later, I've been happily married for 20 years and we own our small house outright. But it could have been so different.

Homeless people need support, now more than ever. If you've got a local homelessness charity I'd suggest you donate if you can afford to, otherwise perhaps donate to Crisis. Obviously a lot of people have got no money at the moment, but if you are one of the lucky ones then there's no time like the present.

Thank you.

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