‘Homeless’ can creep on you or hit you like a hammer. At the beginning you can dismiss it as a passing thing as things will soon get sorted. Maybe, it can be a form of denial. Then after a while you panic and sometimes hit the wrong buttons which can make things worse. I have had some tummy pain and for six months been to the GPs and the hospital several times.
Then one weekend I came back from running a successful workshop on HIV Advocacy. I was in severe pain and went to the doctors, again. After an involved exchange with the doctor, he called the ambulance. Two hours later, I underwent several hours’ operation. It went wrong. As it was major, I had to rest two weeks before they could operate again.
On my release, still in pain, the landlord had replaced the door locks. I went to claim unemployment benefit but was turned down. Agencies were also not keen to give me jobs when I told them my health condition. Some would not even register me on their books. Effectively homeless, you can only sofa-surf so long. When this happens you gradually lose human essence. I was increasingly feeling like just a walking void. You try to avoid normal people because you know now you are meaningless. You are of no value to them anymore. Life is literally about daily existence. Every night is first about safety, security before it’s about sleeping. I became “invisible” as Pope Francis remarked in his recent essay about the future, and asking political leaders to “wake up to inequality”. The poor and the homeless have become “invisible part of the landscape”. They are just things. He quotes from Dostoyevsky’s novel “Notes from Underground”, in which prisoners are so dispossessed and unvalued they are treated like things. “Go underground and see suffering of flesh of the poor, the homeless, and separate from the hyper-virtual world”, he urges.
Normally there is safety in numbers, but I soon realised the dangers of sleeping in town centre with ‘night groups’. Theft, too much alcohol, and even drugs. And then, there’s fighting. Sleeping on your own in the doorways can also invite knife- or gun-wielding unwelcome visitors at night for any valuables you may possess. So I explored further. I opted for Billing Road, opposite the hospital: a chain of sumptuous buildings which are now accounting firms and hard-hitting law practices. I kind of settled after studying the staff movements, the cleaners and security. I was apprehended one morning by the accountancy firm staff member who started work at 5am; then by the cleaner of the law practice, and then security doing unusual patrols. Whenever the alarm went off, I got up and hid next door. The gardeners were another challenge as they always discovered my hidden staff and threw it in the industrial bin, often with their waste on top. The other worry here was that the car park was frequently used by big time drugs suppliers. One of the big houses nearby was dealing big time. The family was also dealt in professional theft of scaffolding material. The mother would survey the area first, and the boys would follow to pick the stuff. One morning she came around and she blocked my way and started to attack me. I was an invader into her family business’s territory.
Black ice posed another danger. I am still in pain from a year ago when I fell and twisted my left elbow. The doctors would almost certainly put some arm bands on it and God knows for how long. I desperately needed the use of this arm to help clear my tracks every morning as well as carrying my little possessions. So I chose to live with pain. Another major choice came after collapsing inside McDonald’s due to my ongoing heart problems about a week before Christmas last year. I was put on the daily waiting list for a pacemaker and a defibrillator. Eventually I was discharged but was warned to await a sudden call when they had a window to operate. I was told that following the operation, I would need a minimum of 7 days’ complete rest and no use of my left arm. Being homeless this was just existentially impossible. Homelessness goes beyond just a roof over your head. It affects your mental health and wellbeing as much and the choices you have to make.
My self-confidence disappeared. Dealing with local authorities poses another problem. There is a perception that priority is given to those who shout louder and exhibit hostile attitude and those caught up in substance abuse. Even when I tried to be in town as early as possible, I was just ignored. It could have been because I was seen not sleeping but sitting on the bench. In winter I would go for coffee and warmth in McDonald’s. This worked against me, it later emerged. Even reporting myself to the police and morning patrol team bore no fruits.
That’s when my bag was stolen with my laptop and all my ID documents and certificates in it. I tried investigating to no avail. Two days later one of the homeless people told me that they saw my laptop bag in a skip in one of the back streets. When I went there the skip had been removed.
I had never told my son or his mum out of shame, humiliation and fear that it will destroy my son’s soul and affect his sense of being and studies. But when Sam got the news she jumped into a rescue action, forming a trio ‘war cabinet’. Herself, Steve and Joseph. Steve got in touch with me, with a provisional offer of temporary charity sponsored accommodation. I would talk to the local authorities housing to process my application for housing benefit. But they said without passport they could not do anything, and stuck by it. My loss of self-confidence probably contributes to how I come across when communicating with authorities.
Getting in touch with the embassy for a passport replacement proved another hurdle. It took several tries to get through on the phone. I got an appointment, only to find that passports applications are now made at another office in North London. I couldn’t get there on time and therefore lost my allocated spot. My emails went unanswered apparently because the offices were closed due to the pandemic. Only when third parties wrote did they reply with a phone call. But every time the goal posts are changed. First, my son’s birth certificates would do. Then marriage certificate. Then my brother’s ID number in South Africa. Then my brother could obtain my ID number at the home office in SA. Then he must first apply for my birth certificate and ID for me in SA. I feel like I am facing oblivion and sometimes wished I could just die. My concentration is severely affected, and I have felt tense many times affecting my breathing. The anxiety and fear of ending up on the streets again is affecting my mental health.
I have spoken to a few rough sleepers about what they think the solution might be, to homelessness. With the government accommodating about “5000 rough sleepers” nationally during this epidemic, it is just touching the tip of the iceberg. Charities are dealing with over 80,000 and, according to Staffordshire University study by Fiona Hassett, next year figures are projected to be 320,000, taking into account “hidden homelessness.” This takes into account “sofa-surfing with no fixed address [and] use of night buses to avoid bedding down in the streets”.
Emergency housing guided by severity of needs is not enough. There is a need for a long term workable solutions. The nation’s response to pandemic shows that if society puts its focus on an issue it can be tackled. Homelessness needs to be redefined within the local authorities: charities obviously pick a lot of pieces left by bureaucracy. In the process of helping, I have noticed with feeding the homeless charities sometimes step on the toes of local authorities who threaten to wield its big stick, yet they are only addressing the dehumanising and cruelty of homelessness by feeding the poor. Charities can help with authority’s overuse of power and self-regarding attitudes often bereft of moral concerns for others which is understandable as it is bureaucracy.
The government could learn from plenty of other countries round the world who deal with homelessness well. It can look further to see how the issue is dealt with in Scandinavian part of the world; as well as across the Atlantic or even further afield, looking around for ideas and inspiration.
We also need more social housing. Government should be encouraged to increase the social housing element of private housing schemes, so that we can build a lot of social housing quickly.
Our churches can play their part, starting a conversation about how churches, charities and the government could respond better. They can also learn from others, inviting figures from the main charities working on this area to contribute.
One area where I think churches could really play a part is through their links with other organisations. One of the things that people who are homeless need most is experience, which can help them when looking for employment. Helping people to find volunteering, mentoring and skill acquisition opportunities with a church’s partners could be very helpful – while also challenging the stigma homelessness faces.
What will you do to end homelessness?
To find out more about churches working to provide mentoring and volunteering opportunities, check out Lighthouse West Yorkshire.