Cameron Collins recounts his time living on the streets, how those more fortunate treated him and what can be done about a huge social problem that no government ever seems able to solve.
There’s nothing quite like the mental gymnastics we perform when we see a homeless person. We start having that awkward debate with ourselves. Should we give them some money unprompted? Or only if they ask? Or ignore them and try not to feel too bad? After all, if we all spotted a pound to every rough sleeper we meet, we’d be bankrupt in a week. Besides, ignoring them won’t hurt their feelings – they must be used to it by now.
In that assumption, you’d be correct. I know this first-hand. I used to sit outside the train stations and corner shops of Hertfordshire and watch people cross the road to avoid me. They were likely hoping that if they got far enough away, I couldn’t ask for change, and thus I could be ignored, guilt-free. I quickly got used to it and I have never harboured any resentment about it. That was 4 years ago and now, as a relatively well-off – in the sense that I can afford to eat, most days – student at Portsmouth University, I occasionally find myself acting the same way.
We don’t disregard the homeless because we don’t care or we don’t want to help; I think many of us simply don’t know how to respond to them. We’ve all heard stories of rough sleepers checking their iPhones and then spending what little they’re given on drugs and alcohol – and with such images firmly rooted in our consciousness, how could we ‘spare some change’ in good faith? If I can afford it, I’ll buy a homeless person a coffee or pass them a spare ciggy, but even then I know I’m not really helping. In reality, I’m just making myself feel better by giving myself a scenario where I can walk away without remorse and hang on to the flimsy contention that I at least did something.
So, what can we do? Is there anything we can do? I was homeless during the build-up to the 2017 General Election and I remember wanting for nothing more than a government that would make things just a little easier for those in my shoes. Yet I knew that was wishful thinking: tackling the homeless crisis has been on every government mandate for donkeys’ years, and yet the results of these policies are often mixed. According to the Crisis charity, between mid-2020 and mid-2021 7% fewer British households required local authority help to avoid losing their homes. But the bad news was that, over the same period, there was a 25% increase in the number of single adults having to resort to temporary accommodation. Locally, Portsmouth City Council admits that, since 2018, ‘there has been a significant increase in the number of homeless people in the city.’
You can put this down to various factors. Loss of earnings and evictions due to Covid-19 lockdowns is one, while looking back over the longer-term you could say Tory austerity and even the New Labour-era economic collapse have played their role. You could also blame an even longer-standing crisis of affordable housing across the UK and the deterioration of traditional family structures over centuries, wherein the old and the young could count on relatives taking them in to their homes. Others pin the whole thing on addiction.
Personally, I’m not even remotely bright nor knowledgeable enough to propose a clear cause and effect. What I can do, though, is share my own experiences as a vagrant and compare them with those I see and interact with in Portsmouth.
I grew up in a, let’s say, abnormal household. I had an absent father, a mentally ill and abusive mother, and a brother in the armed forces. I didn’t become a full-time street dweller until I was 18, but even before then I had spent many a night sleeping rough when my mother would decide to lock me out of the family home and not answer the door.
Around the age of 14, park benches became my preference, although it soon became difficult to get a decent night’s rest with a nice set of anti-homelessness spikes up my bottom. I took to sleeping in shop doorways and in the local nature reserve. It was grim but it was all I had. By the time I was sleeping rough on a permanent basis, the spikes were so ubiquitous that I felt like I was neither seen, nor heard. Worse: I was the monster in a child’s closet that only goes away once ignored for long enough.
Sometimes people would buy me a coffee or spare me a cigarette. While I appreciated that, I wished they could have just given me the money they spent on those items. Another few quid and I could have afforded a night in a shelter, supposing they weren’t already full as they often were. And yes, oxymoronic as it sounds, homeless people who are absolutely skint do have to pay for these shelters. Other times, people were openly vicious. I’ll never forget the not-too-pleasant sensation of being woken up by someone pouring a cup of hot chocolate on me.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I knew a bloke who was urinated on and when he retaliated – as he had every right to – he got himself stabbed and hospitalised. Most people I encountered were decent, but bad eggs are always easier to remember than good ones.
For most of my time on the street I had a job, it just didn’t pay well enough for me to afford a permanent address, even after I kicked my addiction because yes, I was an addict. And that’s very much the elephant in the room. Speaking from my own perspective, a good number of the homeless people I knew back then were either addicts or ex-addicts. In my case it was cocaine but I saw a lot of heroin use too. Yet strangely enough, I have yet to meet a single soul who is homeless because they’re an addict. Generally speaking, people don’t lose it all and survive the withdrawals long enough to make it to the streets.
But if addiction itself doesn’t always cause homelessness, why are so many homeless people addicts? The only answer I can give is that homelessness and drug/alcohol addictions have two main things in common: firstly, nobody wants to be an addict or homeless and secondly, to end up as either, you have probably had an exceptionally crap life.
And therein is the crux of this matter about how we, as individuals, can really help. We can do this by understanding and being empathetic. We should not judge the result of a homeless person’s situation – that they’re on the streets – but instead appreciate how they got there.
Personally, I started taking drugs to escape the situation I was in. Every waking moment in my life was hell but it was, at the very least, bearable as long as I’d had a few lines. And for that reason, while I’m ashamed to admit it, occasionally the money I was given while begging would end up in my dealer’s pocket.
Once again, this could always be linked back to the government as there was never any decent facilities where I could go to kick my habit – another consequence of our austerity-afflicted NHS – although that’s just one piece of a large puzzle. The fact remains that I used drugs at the time because I couldn’t cope and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the people on the streets of Pompey can’t either. If they’re on drugs, I’d bet my life on that being why. Not because they’re criminals or degenerates to be fined £100 for rough sleeping, but human beings who’ve been dealt an exceptionally awful hand in the poker game that is life. I’d even argue that the homeless of Pompey got a worse deal than me, at least in their current predicament.
One thing I can attest to is that getting off the streets will install you with a permanent fear of ever going back. When I move to a new area I always find myself obsessively researching local shelters and community support, just in case. What I found here in Portsmouth worried me a lot, as it was pretty much the same as what I had back in Hertfordshire. I’m only two hours away but the weather here especially is so much worse in the winter. So much colder, wetter and windier.
On the other hand, Pompey people seem more understanding than their Hertfordshire counterparts. I often see them sitting down and having a chat with a rough sleeper. Back home such behaviour would invite laughter and ridicule. So for all those who are wondering what you can do to help the issue, I would say 2 words: be kind. You don’t have to give money to everyone you see, or anyone at all, but be kind. If you’re even worried or want to do anything at all, that’s still better than nothing. Or, if you’re really feeling up to it: I can guarantee that the local shelters will always need more volunteers.