Young People’s Voices: A Day in the Life – Being Homeless in Portsmouth

Photography by Paris Ali-Pilling

Continuing our new series of stories from our Young People’s Voices project – funded by Victorious Festival and supported by the University of Portsmouth – student at Havant and South Downs College, Madison Bowley mixes creative writing with the real words of homeless people on the streets of Portsmouth. Madison gave homeless people in Portsmouth cards with questions about their experiences: in the piece below, their answers are presented in bold italics, with the rest of the story being fictionalised by Madison herself. 

The Young People’s Voice project is all about giving young people an opportunity to express something they feel passionate about and get it published. I think this is a brilliant idea as younger people rarely get the chance to deliver to the public and I am very grateful for the opportunity. However I would like to dedicate my article to some local people who still don’t have a voice in Portsmouth. Those living on the streets we shop in. Those huddled in the doorways we walk past. Those just hidden away enough for society to ignore them. This is for them. This is their voice.

A day in the life: Saturday 20th October 2018

00:05 am

For me the best part about being in Portsmouth is the water. I like to sit here by the harbour, late at night and listen to the noise the water makes, splashing gently against the boats. Yeah, it gets cold sat here. Freezing cold. But there’s something about the noise that’s calming. Peaceful. It makes me feel at ease. And that’s pretty unusual when you’re homeless. So, this distracts me from the fact it’s probably around zero degrees and I’ve got only the sky above me.

Life’s not easy. Not by a long shot. But, you’ve just gotta get on with it, because you’ve got no other option really. Do I feel safe on the streets? No. No one does. It’s not the life that anyone wants. In fact it’s one million miles away from what I pictured my life to look like. But, like I said, you’ve just gotta get on with it and do your best to stay safe and stay positive because, if you can’t stay positive, what’s the f***ing point.

07:00 am

I hardly slept last night. My buddy (Sol), a pal who I’ve been sticking with since I’ve been down in Pompey, got beat up last night by some junkie. I don’t know if there is more behind it than what he says, but what I do know is that this guy, a good 20 years younger than Sol, beat him black and blue. Ripped both his hearing aids out. Some people really are sick. Sol’s okay now but neither of us really got any sleep after that. I’m gonna take him down to the public toilets in a minute near where we’re staying. I think they open at 7:20. I’ll have a wash there too. That’s what it’s all come to now….sink washes. Down here, in Pompey, it’s almost impossible to earn enough money to get a room for the night. Especially a room with a shower.   

Portsmouth’s not big enough. Not busy enough. Not enough walkers-by willing to drop me the change from their £3.75p Costa coffee. But it doesn’t bother me too much, because with a bigger city comes busier streets, as in busy with homeless people, and that’s where I found myself getting into the most trouble really. Big cities. Fights, drinking, drugs. It all thrives in big cities. I’m not proud of any of it by no means. But the thing is… When you end up homeless for whatever reason (and there are many reasons) and you’ve lost everything, it’s almost impossible not to devalue yourself. For me and many others I have met on the street, drink and drugs are the only thing that can numb the pain. The pain from the cold. The pain from reality. But with drugs comes fights, with fights comes pain and with pain comes drugs. You lose hope. You don’t care about anything you’ve ever had and anything you’ll ever be. It’s almost like an infinite cycle which spirals on and on. I say ‘almost’ because it’s not infinite. You can break free from the cycle. If you want to badly enough. And that’s why I’ve moved down to Portsmouth. 

11:00 am

I’ve come down to Commercial Road on my own because, as much as I get along with Sol and enjoy his company through the nights, he doesn’t help my situation when it comes to making money on the streets. He’s a raging alcoholic. Has been for 20 odd years. He’s got no teeth left. His wife, with sixteen years of marriage… just left him. He woke up one morning and she had just…left. Disappeared. He’s not heard a word since. He’s got a daughter, but he lost his head big time after all that s*** happened. Social services took her away from him years ago, before he became homeless. He turned to drink to help him deal with the pain he was going through emotionally. He sits there p***ed out his head and people just walk to the other side of the road. This is why I can’t sit with him. I tell him I’ve got plans and he’s too drunk to question it.

It’s really f***ing hard to sit here on days like today. I’m sat outside JD Sports, just watching all the teenage kids walk past me with their expensive trainers, huge phones and bags full of shopping. It’s always a major reality check for me. I remember back to when I was that age. Running away from the care homes they placed me in and sleeping on roundabouts because I felt safest there. Nobody would walk past.

3 pm

I’ve made £14.70 so far today. Pretty sh*t for a Saturday. A nice old lady bought me a bacon roll and a tea from Greggs which was kind of her. See, I’ve realized there are three different types of people when it comes to walking past a homeless person like me on the street.  

There are those who try to avoid any eye contact with us. Pretend to look at their phone or turn their head as soon as they clock us. I don’t know why. Maybe they feel bad that they can’t spare some change for us or can’t buy us some food or drink. I get people can’t just hand out their money willy nilly, but a smile doesn’t cost anything, just to be recognised like a normal person – this means so much more. It makes us feel human again, like we’re not invisible after all.

Then, there are those who do acknowledge we’re there. Shouting abuse, physically attacking us or trying to move us on. It’s not such a problem down in Portsmouth. It does happen though, don’t get me wrong, when I was up in London the violence was extreme. I’ve been p***ed on before, beaten badly and someone once even tried to set fire to me and my stuff. 

And then, there are a small amount of  people who will walk past, drop some change or buy us something to eat. But not always. Sometimes they just smile or make some friendly conversation. For a few seconds we’re not a burden, we’re just a person.

5 pm

It’s starting to get colder now. Apparently they say it’s going to be one of the coldest winters in the UK’s history. I’m really hoping to be able to sort out somewhere to stay soon. Sleeping on the streets in icy conditions is something I wouldn’t wish on my biggest enemy. I say ‘sleeping’ but I can promise that there is none of that involved. In fact the opposite, you’ve got to keep moving. I get scared to fall asleep in fear I won’t wake up the next morning. It’s not got that bad yet, but I can feel the temperature dropping. That’s why a lot of us drink as well. To keep warm.  

7 pm

I’m back with Sol. We’re going to go down to the Lifehouse for some dinner tonight. Every Thursday and Saturday evening they open for soup. Monday and Sunday for breakfast.  It’s really good actually – I look forward to it all day. You just go in, sit in the warm for a bit and enjoy your food without getting stared at. I guess it’s the closest thing to ‘home’ that we’ve got. I miss home.

8 pm

This time three years ago I’d be driving home from my full time job. Our family business that was my father’s pride and joy. Our family business that died when my father did. And today I’m sat here, wrapped up in a sleeping bag with nothing to show for it. We were quite well off: we had a nice house, nice clothes, we ate well. It was amazing, but I didn’t really realize how lucky I was until I lost everything. All I want is for a little bit of privacy, enough money to do basic things to help me get by and not rely on other people. That is what would make me feel safe. That’s all I want and all I’ll ever need. My biggest fear is that I’ll never be able to have this. I made enough today to buy a bottle of whisky. I have to hide it from Sol, so whenever he manages to doze off for a few minutes I’ll just have a few glugs to try and warm me up. It’s gonna be a long night. 

The Young People’s Voices project aims to provide young people with a platform to share their opinions, report on topics that affect them and advance standards of literacy. We worked with students from St Edmunds School and Havant and South Downs College to investigate and write their own stories, in a variety of styles and mediums – from creative memoir and opinion pieces to their own investigations. All their work will be published on S&C throughout July, and all participants have the chance to enter their work into a competition to read their story on the Spoken Word Stage at the 2019 Victorious Festival. You will find all the Young People’s Voices stories here as we publish them.


This project is supported by the University of Portsmouth, with thanks to the teams in Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI). It was delivered by University of Portsmouth MSc and PhD researchers Maddie Wallace and Lauren Jones.