14 nights (02.10.2022 - 16.10.2022)
Starting out … Day 1
I’ve said goodbye to home for the next 14 days. My bed, the kettle, TV, radio, microwave, fridge and even my car have been left behind. Oh, I forgot the shower and toilet. I have got my toothbrush!
This morning people at Sheffield Cathedral Church wished me well, prayed over me, told me to stay safe and to be careful. I have no intention of not being careful and I know this sleepout is to genuine rough sleeping what glamping is to trekking in the Himalayas. There is a world of difference.
I have chosen to sleepout and prepared for it. I walked away from home already equipped with a sleeping bag and tent. Having both is not unknown for rough-sleepers, but having them on your first night of sleeping rough is. By rights, I should have to do at least one night with nothing, unable to sleep and, at this time of year, probably walking around to stay warm when it comes to the really cold part of the night at about 3 am.
There are so many differences between my sleepout and genuine homelessness but when I was talking to a few people who are former rough-sleepers they told me not to worry, I would learn enough! That’s what I hope. It’s started already. Where do I go now? What do I do? There’s a lot of hours between now and bedtime. I’ve given up family life, I have no-one to speak to, in a busy city centre I feel alone and with a rucksack on my back and dressed for the worst weather, I don’t fit in. It’s a weird feeling.
Day 2: If only I could carry a mattress! And a pillow, that would be nice. My inch thick self-inflating mattress was better than nothing, and kept me insulated but I never really got comfortable for very long.
It was my first of fourteen nights sleeping rough. I was out at Mosborough, welcomed by St Mark’s Church with enough sandwiches for tea and breakfast but by 5 pm I was by myself. I sat on a concrete slab and wondered what I was supposed to do now. By 6pm, I’d laid my sleeping bag out and re- arranged it three or four times. I thought about food because there was a chip shop across the road from the church. I wasn’t hungry but eating is doing something, and I was restless. At 7.30 pm I woke up. I’d dozed off, good. That was a relief. I could forget about being alone and potentially vulnerable enough to sleep. The noises around me had changed and it was darker. The road was quieter and sudden noises of people talking grabbed my attention, so I kept sitting up to see if anyone was in the church yard. They weren’t and no-one seemed interested in me. Thank goodness. It can’t have bothered me too much because at 9 pm a sudden “Hi, are you okay?” woke me with a start. Fortunately, it was a familiar face.
B is a loner, he is a rough sleeper but, by and large, he tries to avoid other rough sleepers, especially at night. He sat down with his 2-litre bottle of cider. He’d travelled from the city centre, ‘jumping’ the tram, to keep me company and for the next three hours we talked. He started by asking why I wasn’t going the whole hog and drinking 8 pints of special brew or something, because using something to cope, to forget, is part of the deal. I told him what he already knew, I wasn’t the real deal. As if to make me more aware of that, he got up and went to the street to blag a cigarette and came back delighted with three good tab ends and a single complete cigarette. I’m not sure how many days it will take before I am desperate for alcohol or something else to numb the experience of having no place to call my home. I hope it is more than fourteen days. I don’t smoke but if I did, the desperation for a cigarette would make me blag them very soon, and maybe collecting tab ends would follow. I know that after wondering what to do and how to pass the time, I really enjoyed having company. Then, when the clock had struck midnight, just 1 litre of cider gone, he lay down and was snoring within 5 minutes. Hardened to life without a mattress, he was snoring every time I woke to change positions and pull the collected bits that were my makeshift pillow back into a pile. He was still asleep when I got up at 6.30 am to leave. I heard him say goodbye and wish me well for the rest of my journey. He may never know how much he made the start of it so much more palatable.
Day 3: Can I trust you? What are you up to? I spent the first part of last night scanning the people passing by me. People take a short cut through St Aidan’s churchyard and walked right next to me, tucked up in the doorway. It’s the closest I want to be to being afraid.
A man walked past and noticed me. Immediately, he looked straight ahead, avoiding any eye contact. What was I? Something to be afraid of? Something unwanted? I didn’t know but I instantly felt wary of him. Another did the same. The first man returned, eyes fixed away from me. A man and a woman walked by, the woman turned, looked surprised to see me and then smiled and said ‘Hello.’ What a smile, such a small but valuable thing. I’d started to feel vulnerable and question whether I was safe. In just half an hour I’d realised I needed to stay alert. I wasn’t going to take my shoes off in case I need to get up quickly. I was going to drape my sleeping bag over me and not get in it. I sat up so I didn’t look like I was sleeping, as if that made me safer.
That smile and ‘hello’ didn’t change my plans, but it did something. I was recognised. I was okay enough for someone to speak to me.
A man came and stood just past where I was and stopped. He’d noticed me but stood looking the other way. He wandered back to the other side of the doorway and did the same. He just stood there, looking up and down the road. There seemed no earthly reason for anybody to stop either side of that doorway, never mind both. What was he doing? Was it time to get up and move? What does someone with bad intentions look like? I was glad I’d kept my shoes on! He was smoking, he turned and looked at me and said, “Do you want one?” “No, thank you, I don’t smoke.” “I shouldn’t be smoking. I’m just out of sight of my wife here, so I can smoke! Do you want food?” The tension inside me fell away and with not a little relief I had someone to chat to.
I thought I wouldn’t sleep because I was too watchful, but I hadn’t account for boredom. Keeping watch with nothing to occupy you when you are already tired doesn’t work. I nodded off and woke with a jolt. I nodded off and heard a first snore and it woke me again. I couldn’t keep awake. What about my wallet and phone, and rucksack? If I fell asleep here, they wouldn’t be safe. I would have to get in the sleeping bag with everything valuable, my rucksack shoved in the corner under my head, so I’d be disturbed if anyone touched it or searched around me.
So, fitfully, I went through the night. No-one did disturb me. I owe a big thank you to Sybille Batten at St Aidan’s for the soup, garlic bread and whichever member of the church made the cake. I didn’t go hungry.
Day 4: So, today is the story of the ‘haves and the have nots’, or ‘me and him’. It rained yesterday and through the night. Not heavy rain, and not all the time but I have a tent and the rough sleeper, who had heard about what I was doing and who found me, didn’t.
It was about half past nine when I pitched the tent because the people at Heeley Parish Church had fed both of us and kept us entertained as we talked about homelessness. The ground was wet, and I told my companion that we could share the tent. Did I want to share the tent? No, if I’m honest. He told me he hadn’t showered for about a week, so he hadn’t changed for that long either, and, he said, the amount of alcohol he drinks has terrible effects on his bowels. Not very attractive!! But was I prepared to share. Absolutely! But he said ‘No.’ I tried to persuade him and in the end he said if it really rained hard he’d use it as shelter. That was that.
In the night I heard him snoring and groaning. I heard the rain on the tent too. But he stayed where he was. Deep within I knew part of the reason was that to him I was the CEO of the project he uses, and I couldn’t bridge that gap. And it is a massive gap. At 7 am I packed the tent away as he chatted to me from under his wet sleeping bag.
As I walked into the city centre, I found myself welling up, upset, and fighting back the need to cry. Was it because in his life a wet sleeping bag has become good enough? Maybe, I know I’m struggling with that. Or was it because I had felt so impotent in the night each time I’d woken up. My need to understand and to make the world just slightly better was wounded by a sense of failure or rejection.
There was another thought swimming around in my head. Earlier in the evening he had described his habit of drinking too much and getting into fights. He isn’t small and he reacts to things that make him angry and then, when sober, regrets it. He added something like, “But I can cope with it, if I can cope with what my dad did to me, I can cope with anything.” Most people who end up sleeping rough have experienced severe childhood traumas. It’s something that creates distance between themselves and the society around them because life becomes an exercise in survival, and trusting others isn’t a great survival technique. The outcomes of trauma aren’t socially pretty - crime, addiction, aggression and much more. Anything that helps to numb the pain and survive.
For some it gets too much, and death seems the best option. I want to shout this story from the roof tops. Ending homelessness has to start with understanding this story just as much, if not more, as building good quality affordable homes.
Day 5a: I don’t want to seem ungrateful but…..
Last night, after I’d bedded down, a former rough sleeper turned up to see me. He lived a five-minute drive away from Shiregreen Church. He’d texted me and asked if I wanted coffee or tea, he doesn’t touch alcohol. But it wasn’t just coffee he brought. He’d made sandwiches, had two bananas and a box of shortbread. “What’s in the sandwiches?” I asked. “Does it matter. Just get them down ya.” “What’s in them?” Eventually he said, “Bacon, lettuce and tomato.” “I’m veggie,” I replied. “What do you want to be that for, you ungrateful sod?”
I suddenly have very few proper choices. In general, I’m really grateful, but I miss my kitchen and choosing what I’m going to eat. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
On Tuesday night when I was walking to Heeley, I passed Bramall Lane when the burger vans had opened, and carpark stewards were getting in place for the match. It suddenly struck me that even if I wanted to go, as a rough sleeper, it was beyond me. I have virtually no money, I have a rucksack I’d have to do something with, but more importantly, I don’t feel part of that society that can do those things or be accepted in those places, and it was only day three. I went and sat in a park to kill 2 hours of time and stewed over a simple and obvious fact. I can walk down the same streets as everybody else, but I can’t go to many of the places most others can go. Even in a well-known fast-food place, once I’d ordered, I felt I was being monitored. I took my coffee and walked away instead of sitting inside. The baggage and appearance weigh heavy and, I think, define me when people look at me.
James phoned me up to ask how it was going. For nearly two decades he lived this transient lifestyle, addicted to illegal drugs, and for long periods surviving on the street. “It’s more than that mate,” he said, “I watched couples holding hands and just walking down the street, going in shops or wherever. I’d have loved that. Watching people go in restaurants and you know they’re not places for you.” As a rough sleeper you occupy a different universe.
A little later James said, “And then, at night when I was carrying my stuff to bed down, I didn’t want them to see me. I wanted to disappear. If you have a quiet night and there’s nothing to write about, treasure it!” Last night I had a quiet night!
Day 5b: “Tim, you look like s***” (How J, another former rough sleeper, greeted me yesterday)
I realised yesterday that I need to change my plans. One of the things I’d wondered about for many years is how difficult it is to function properly if you are sleeping rough, especially if drugs and alcohol are part of the coping strategy. So far, I’ve tried to keep up my work during the day. Yesterday at 11am I realised all I was good for was reacting. I could answer emails and phone calls and stuff like that but that list of work I want to do and may need to do, that is partly in my head, had gone. I couldn’t think what to do next without real effort.
We want people who are rough sleeping to be organised enough to take reasonable decisions that will help them in the long run. It means remembering appointments and where those appointments are meant to be. It involves keeping your composure when systems fail, or people don’t understand what you’re really asking for or trying to say. It involves a lot of things that at my best I can do with ease. But I’m not at my best and I can’t be because I’m not getting enough sleep and I don’t feel great about being me or the way some people have looked at me or treated me.
For the remainder of the two weeks, I won’t go to the office much. I will write the blog and post it and I will keep the handful of appointments I’ve got over the next nine days. Otherwise, I will see what I feel like with nothing much between waking and sleeping. A few of those who were rough sleepers have told me that’s what I should be doing, so that’s what I’ll do.
And one more thing…. today, I had a shower. It felt so good!! Today I took off socks that have been on my feet for four days, I won’t tell you any more details. The sad reality is that at night I haven’t wanted to take them off, nor my trousers or shirts. I needed them for warmth. I’ve got clean socks, but there wasn’t the option of a clean shirt. Thank you City Taxis! I had an early meeting at their offices and they let me use their shower!!
Day 6: It really is beyond belief.
I was tired last night, I had an almost idyllic spot, safe, unseen, and clean at Grenoside Parish church. But I didn’t sleep. I dozed and kept dozing but that was it and in the end I just counted down the time until there was no point staying there. I even felt a bit sorry for myself because, to be frank, I wanted to be at home where I could stay in bed with the curtains closed and the door shut. But the truth is that this homelessness of mine is easy compared to the experiences of others and, thankfully, it will remain that way. Just another nine nights for me.
But imagine if when I’ve finished, I find that my home, the one I left, is no longer mine. Some people are on the street not because they haven’t got a home but because they can’t use the one they have. Chris was one of those. He was cuckooed. Having been on the street, he took pity on someone who said they needed his help and he let them stay. But it was a con for a gang to get a foot in the door, “they used my kindness as a weakness to systematically destroy me…. How could I be so stupid!” They took control until Chris was bullied into submission and left, back to the street but with all the responsibility of paying for the rent and other costs of the flat in his name. “How do you explain this to the council? (that you LET them in!)” he said.
I remember the first cuckooing case I dealt with. Stephen took a few days to tell the whole story. He was ashamed. Admitting he had been bullied and victimised wasn’t easy. He felt weak and stupid. Even worse, after putting the story on the table he was left with choices he was afraid of. Housing services could do nothing until he had reported it as a crime. But that meant naming his abusers and tormentors. He was too afraid of them. They would find him on the street. And he was afraid to give the tenancy up because that would mean they would be evicted, and they would blame him. More fear. All the time he was accruing debts. Everything was in his name. What a mess. What should he do?
Chris did report being cuckooed to the police, but he was told that because he had invited them in they could do nothing.
It would be easy at this point to just blame the system. The big bad system. And there is just cause but we keep reducing the size of the system so that it creaks when it has to deal with less common issues. And cuckooing, however you look at it, is complicated. The frontline team of the ‘system’ cares, I’m part of it, and most of the time we get there even if we sometimes say ‘eventually’.
I’m not being cuckooed, thank God, and I won’t be, but if you saw me on the street today you wouldn’t
know that would you?
Day 7: Rain, rain, go away..
I was sat in the Winter Gardens purely and simply because it was dry. I needed to be on my way, but the weather was awful and as I watched a couple dressed for coming into town for the evening, no coat, just shirt sleeves, I felt the first pangs of jealousy because they didn’t need to worry about getting wet. I don’t know what real rough sleepers do, but upper most in my mind was keeping dry. It would be cold later and this rain would soak me to the skin. ‘Stay dry, stay dry’, was the message coming from a deep instinct. ‘You can’t afford to get ill. Should I spend money and get the bus? I didn’t know. Maybe I’d have to.’ Decisions, decisions. ‘I don’t have much money. I’d rather a drink.’
Suddenly I felt totally dispirited as if the tedium and pointlessness of being me in that minute and all the hours ahead had been captured into one moment of feeling. I was empty. I didn’t know why I was doing this. All around me people were living. Friends meeting on a work break, a small girl subconsciously happy and at home in her dad’s presence, a woman changing from her wet cycling over trousers ready for whatever she was going onto, tourists new to the Winter Gardens. I was waiting, just waiting, oh and totting up what the cost of what my decision would be.
I thought of James’ description of watching couples holding hands knowing that joyfulness wasn’t his. Was this one of those moments?
But the sun came out. Yes!! As down as I had felt, now I had to be on it, no time for sentiment. How long would the break last? Well, I got to Dronfield just as the rain started and found a bus shelter to stand in and then I saw a line of dry ground under the overhang in front of the shops. Sod it. People could think what they wanted about me, I was going to sit there, homeless looking, homeless feeling, tired and couldn’t care less.
45 minutes later I discovered that St Andrew’s Community Church had been open all along and the after-school club were waiting to hear about my journey. A timely reminder it’s not really real for me, but try telling me that at the time.
Day 8: And still it goes on…..
What a beautiful day! The sun shone and I walked. For quite a while there was nothing about the day that had anything to do with homelessness. I was just a walker in the countryside. No one would guess otherwise. And all would have been well apart from the fact that I’m trying to stick to some guidelines learned from real rough sleepers. The lovely country pub was off limits.
I was once in Sheffield City Centre with a lad who was one or two steps away from street homelessness. We were next to Café Rouge, and I asked him if he wanted a coffee.
“In there? No way.” He looked at me as if I was joking with him. To me it was a coffee shop. To him, it was another world, a place he was excluded from. A self-exclusion. He looked around as we went in as if he expected some bouncer to step in front of him. Within ten minutes the myth had been busted. It was just another place to get a coffee.
The country pub was in my self-exclusion zone. So what? Well, my phone battery was dead, and I wanted to charge it. I could have done that there. There would be somewhere else surely? But there wasn’t. And at my destination there wasn’t anywhere. So, no phone. But also, no conversation. I sat and watched people pass-by with an occasional ‘Hi’. I sat in one place and then moved to another and found a bench. And I sat there for a while and then moved somewhere else. Killing time that didn’t want to die. No conversation. No cup of tea or coffee. People passing by doing simple things. Walking the dog. Popping into the Co-op. Overhearing bits of others’ conversations, friends processing thoughts as they walked and talked. I felt alone. I was alone, not even a phone to check.
At six I met Gary the vicar who had food for me and a socket to plug in the phone. I talked too much. I could hear myself doing it. It was wonderful. The phone came alive. Messages. I hadn’t checked in, because that’s one of the conditions of me doing this. Then the full weight of loneliness descended, not mine, the loneliness of others who weren’t getting messages, who didn’t have people checking in with them, who weren’t asked if they were safe. I cried again. I must be tired, surely I don’t usually cry this easily?
I know that most homeless people have other homeless people but it’s not the same. I know it’s not because each Christmas we hear the same thing, “I bloody hate Christmas!” Why? Because it’s the big annual reminder of not having messages of love and care.
Day 9: What if?..
Today’s blog was going to be about Richard. This journey was supposed to be his. He thought of it and wanted to do it. I’m doing it as a replacement, I didn’t start 2022 with any idea that I would spend 14 nights with no home.
But first I need to tell you about my body. For the last few days, it has objected loudly. No, it has shouted at me; ‘this is no way to treat me!!’ When I get up, I’ve got a picture in my mind of my dad in his seventies, slowly stretching when he stood up, as if he was putting some of his bones back in place, a place they were tired of being. That’s me this morning. I wake two or three times in the middle of every night to reposition in the least uncomfortable shape. Usually, I move from sleeping on one side to the other, and then to sleeping on my back. I don’t think I ever sleep on my back at home.
I am tired. And I have to get up and leave. Years of listening to people tells me that the time I need to leave depends on where I’ve found to sleep. One man was accepted sleeping in an old hut near some factories and would sometimes stay all day, mentally unwell and avoiding human contact. But, I think, that is rare. Most get up and leave before daytime users come and see them. They don’t want to lose a good spot. Typically, I would have no choice. Aching bones and unwilling body would stand for nothing. Trudge, trudge, trudge. Off I go into another day which holds little in terms of promise.
So, back to Richard. Aston Church was the first place he ever slept rough. It was the day his bridge with home was finally burnt. I have all sorts of ‘what if?’ questions that imagine early interventions stopping years of street life, of drug dependency, begging, being the victim of two serious assaults on the street, being taken off the street into hospital. Not to mention developing the nasty side of his character to defend himself. Years and years and years of lost talent, lost life, lost relationships.
But the truth is, my ‘what ifs’ were needed sooner. What if his mum hadn’t died? What if his dad had coped better with her death? What if the wider family hadn’t threatened his dad’s ability to cope with two young children? What if…? What if?... What if?..
Recently he asked what it was like to grieve. He didn’t think he’d ever done it. Not for his mum, because he thought he might be to blame. What could a small child have done? But he was cuddling her when her heart stopped. The thought that he should have done something has stayed with him. He didn’t grieve for his dad. He had rebelled against his dad. His dad never gave up on him and Richard knew it. When he died, Richard used more heroin. It took him to a happier place away from grief. And now?
Well, Richard is getting there.
He has a life. Why did it have to take so long?
Day 10: I want to be where you are.
5.30 pm. It’s cold. I imagine the cars on the road are warm inside. I’m thinking about it because I’m sat shivering. I’ve found a bit of shelter, an L-shaped wall, which stops the wind. Shortly, I’ll get up and walk about because my bum is cold, the paving slab beneath me is drawing out warmth. But I’ve been walking for a while and I need to sit for a bit.
Maybe I should get my sleeping bag and mattress out, but it feels too early. I can smell Chinese food. The smell is tempting but I can’t afford it. The church I’m at will feed me, that reminds me I’m not really homeless.
5.45 pm. My bum and the slab feel the same temperature. Maybe I should stay. But what will I do? I wonder where the cars are heading? I’m jealous of them. I imagine warm rooms, kettles boiling, the TV on, paused for a conversation about the day. But it’s all somewhere else and I’m here.
If I do get up and move from here, where do I go? What do I do? A couple of lads are walking past me swearing at each other. Just for a moment I stop thinking about the cold and hope they walk by and ignore me. They do. If I were walking into my home now I’d head straight for the shower and stand in it to let the water warm me. And then I’d check the treat drawer, maybe there’d be some fruit loaf I could toast and melt butter on. Dreams. Dreams. All I have is thoughts of being elsewhere. I’m tired. I could go home but if this were real, I wouldn’t even have that thought.
The wall isn’t stopping the draught as much as I’d like. It’s 5.55 pm and, fortunately, someone has arrived at the church. I have a chance to go into the warmth before I come back out to sleep. I’m not really homeless.
6.30 am It was cold last night, and I have a really good sleeping bag. How did others cope? It’s only October!
The thing that strikes me as I get up is that I smell. My feet stink. They override the other odours until I put my boots on. Then I can smell my clothes. It’s my tenth day and if I’d been kicked out of home, I might not have found places like the Archer Project. And even if I had I’m not sure how I would feel about admitting I smell.
8.30 am I got a lift into Sheffield and am sat in the train station. I can’t describe how different I feel from the people around me. They are busy, clean, dressed for the business of the day ahead. They are purposeful. All I can think of is that I smell. I didn’t know why it was important to have just one set of clothes when I set off ten days ago. I do now. I am de-humanised in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I am, somehow, less than the people I meet or see. I am ashamed of how I am. The danger is that with time I will forget, and this will become my new normal.
Day 11: Lest we forget..
It’s 5.52 am and I’ve had a fairly good sleep. Lying here in the beautiful doorway of St Mary’s Church, Ecclesfield, a cloudy moon is alone in the sky. When I went to sleep the sky was full of stars. I don’t know their names.
If Gav was here, he might tell me something about constellations. He died in 2020 after years of alcohol abuse. When I first knew him, sometimes passed out on the Cathedral grass, I couldn’t have guessed at the intelligence that filled his head. I wouldn’t have guessed the horrors either. The violent death he witnessed, the rejection by his stepdad, the journey into the care system which didn’t work for him, the loss of a daughter and so the story goes on.
This doorway is poignant too. The last time I was here was for the funeral of K. Twenty years of military service, three stripes on his arm and enough trauma to sink a battleship. He used the Archer Project for just a few months. In that time, we saw the two sides, a joy and zest for life and the tremendous weight of internal pain that he couldn’t shed. He let it go in the only way he knew.
This may sound strange, but I’ve just sat and named a whole list of people who used our project and others in Sheffield, and who are now dead. It doesn’t feel morbid. Sat here, it feels respectful. Jason, Liam, Spence, Jo, John, Stephen, Charlotte, ... you don’t need to hear all the names and it’s far too long a word count for a blog. Besides, there are too many for me to remember and if I feel any sadness this morning it’s because I think they shouldn’t be forgotten.
But I don’t feel sad, I feel hopeful. I set out on this journey to have a conversation about homelessness and the response has been amazing. That can only be a good and hopeful thing. You’ve got to have hope, haven’t you?
And I slept well last night. I think that makes a difference too.
I’ve got a can of beer here and that reminds of someone. He used to open his bottle of drink first thing in the morning. The very first thing he did to get him going when he lived in a tent. He had been a cook and we agreed with him that if he could come into the centre without that early morning drink he could help in the kitchen. He did and at first, he lasted till eight o’clock before leaving for that drink. And then it was half past eight, then nine. He had hope and he worked at it with just a little help from us. When he died it was in his own home. He hadn’t conquered his demons, but he had done enough to be proud.
We didn’t know about trauma back then. I wonder what difference that might have made to the journey we offered him?
I have never started the day with alcohol, but maybe today… I think I’ll save it for tonight.
Day 12: It’s everywhere
I’m in Eyam, famous as the Plague Village. I’m not here because it is overrun with homelessness. Though rural homelessness is real, and the locals can tell you about supporting people who have made the countryside their none-home.
Quite simply, Eyam Parish Church is where the idea of a fourteen day sleep out began. My day here has felt like a ‘break’ from being homeless and I feel a bit guilty for not being more hardcore. After all, I’m supposed to be homeless.
On my way here I had a conversation with someone who had slept rough for two weeks. It wasn’t in a rural village, but it was in her local community. She didn’t run away to the city. And it was ‘hardcore’ homelessness. But most of her homelessness wasn’t sleeping rough. She survived by using friends’ homes when life went wrong. For her it was always domestic violence. Interestingly, she distinguished between times when there was no physical violence, it was just that home had become dangerous, and real violence when she had to flea for fear of physical injury.
Her two weeks of rough sleeping had been carefully managed. She tried to give the appearance of not being homeless. She visited friends during the day, saying nothing about not being able to go home. Why? Because she was ashamed. She was embarrassed. She thought everybody would think her weak or stupid. So, she acted. She pretended all was okay and spent her time visiting friends. Then, when she had outstayed her welcome, she went to another friend until she felt her only choice was to go and hide in the local churchyard. The next day she would do exactly the same. The churchyard was where she slept.
That was the first time. Then the violence became ‘real’. She told her friends and they let her stay for the periods she couldn’t go home. She wasn’t rough sleeping, but she was homeless. She still felt ashamed. And let’s be frank, it was still hardcore homelessness.
Another woman we worked with said that after a while of using a friend she felt the need to return to the street. Her friend didn’t kick her out. She just felt uncomfortable putting on them. ‘They were a couple. How could they be a couple with me sleeping on their sofa?” It limited them, she argued. She felt an intruder and went back to the street.
I felt just a tiny bit of that yesterday as I was welcomed by Merlyn and Paul, who for years have been supporters of the Archer Project. I haven’t been in a home for ten days and felt reluctant because I smell. I didn’t want to take my shoes off as I went in because my feet stink. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, quite the opposite, being homeless does that for me.
Day 13: First survive, then thrive
I’m sat on The Moor, one of the main shopping streets in Sheffield. It’s 8.30 am. Shops are getting ready to open and a few familiar faces have walked past me. Two are men who are part of the street homeless population. One has accommodation. He walked past with a can of alcohol in his hand, open. It would be easy for me to judge him, after all he could be at home instead of here and he's drinking early in the morning. I feel conflicted because I know there's a reason he turned to drink. I also know he won't be easy to deal with later in the day if he drinks too much.
I have a day of nothingness ahead. It is beyond boredom. It is surviving, with no other purpose than to get through the day. There are moments of relief, and for some that comes in the form of alcohol or drugs. Yesterday, for me, it was Carla. She spotted me and waved. I came alive. A smiling face I knew walking towards me!!
Carla has never been homeless, but her dad was. Homeless and a street alcoholic, he was killed on Fargate. He wasn’t dissimilar to the person who passed me a few minutes ago, except that for Carla’s dad, there was a successful career and family life before that series of events came along that led to a breakdown.
He hadn’t decided to be homeless. He didn’t set out to be rejected and judged. When I knew him, he argued powerfully and persuasively, even cantankerously. He was clever. He cared for others on the street. I called him ‘The Doctor’ because he knew more about health and social care than me. His experience of breakdown and street life left him with little hope. He focused on survival, both his and those he shared his life with. Getting alcohol was part of that. Survival is a different mindset than choice.
All these years later, Carla fights for people who others continue to judge. It is personal. People who suffer homelessness should have better food, they should have health care, they should have everything that makes life bearable, and it should happen today, now. Now is the most important time.
Carla can’t change what happened to her dad, but we can change the future for others.
So, something else from yesterday. Theresa, responding to the blog and the comments that came from it, talked about the pain of being a mother watching her daughter suffer. Then she thanked The Archer Project and Printed By Us. It reminded me that all this very necessary talk about homelessness isn’t complete without the knowledge that people survive and go on to thrive.
Something to celebrate!
Find out more about how we employ people with a history of homelessness and take a look at our premium quality sustainably produced screen printed artwork and garments at https://lnkd.in/etbZk6dq
Day 14: The loo
One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is, “What are you doing about the toilet?”
Remember, I am not homeless. I have had 14 churchyards to sleep in. Most have given me access to a toilet, though I have had some nights with no loo in sight. Toilets are a problem.
Walking from the car park to our centre at Sheffield Cathedral one morning, Patrick was stood gloved up, bag in one hand, shovel in the other and a bucket of soapy water on the ground. “Just dealing with a pile.”
“Oh, that’s unpleasant.”
“I know, fancy needing to go and there being nowhere!” His sympathy was with the leaver of the deposit. Mine was with him.
I went into this fourteen days of homelessness knowing I have occasional problems with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). There are moments when my body gives me little warning of the need to go. Sometimes it’s an immediate demand. At others I can manage about fifteen or so minutes of concentrated effort to get me to a loo. I’ve been lucky. IBS has only bothered me twice, both times within range of an accessible toilet….. accessible to me. But most rough sleepers don’t have the access I’ve had.
One of my rules for the last two weeks is that I wouldn’t go into places to eat or drink that I believe people who are homeless wouldn’t use. Needing the toilet made me really question that decision. If you are desperate, surely you take a risk. I remember being in a high street coffee shop chain and seeing someone who was a known street drinker come in and make his way to the toilet. He carried all the traits of someone who lives on the street, and I looked around to see the response of those he passed.
They all looked at him. And he stared defiantly back. He knew he was out of place. He looked uncomfortable, but he needed the loo. Since that time many shops and coffee shops have fitted code locks so that toilets are for customers only. City centre public toilets have closed.
When I was thinking about this blog, I mentioned to a couple of people that I have a 57-year-old bladder, generally in good condition but with a faulty stop / start function. A much younger woman responded, “I’ve got a ‘three baby bladder’ and that’s useless.” She had survived homelessness.
I realise toileting and health are individual issues, but they impact each other too. Someone else mentioned being coeliac. It was only when they were diagnosed that they realised how unwell they had felt for years, with an impact on their bowels.
Over fourteen days I’ve shared much which I think is hidden about homelessness. We don’t wear badges telling our histories. Our health needs are invisible. Maybe this is the most important thing. It allows us to overlook important things and make unwarranted assumptions. It’s probably the worst part about being homeless.
Day 15: Has it ended yet?
I was awake at just before six this morning, lying in my sleeping bag, looking out at a clear sky from the doorway at St John's, Ranmoor. I tucked my shoulders into the bag because it was cold. Today I can go home but instead of elation I feel drained and empty.
I have no sense of achievement or satisfaction. I realised that if this was the last day of an adventure, walking the Pennine Way or something like that, I may be sad that it was over, but I’d be taking away a trophy of some kind, an objective completed and enjoyed. I haven’t enjoyed these fourteen days.
I’ve loved meeting wonderful people at the end of the day. And I’ve made some new friends. But homelessness got into my head and body and that’s a horrible experience.
On Friday afternoon I had a low. It wasn’t a surprise. It happened most days but that day I texted my wife:
“I just need to say this to someone, I don’t want you to come and get me, but I’ve had enough. I don’t want to sleep out tonight, I don’t want to speak to another group, I want to be at home in a comfortable chair, falling asleep. I don’t want to walk the remaining 25 minutes. I just want to stop.”
It was Friday, though I’d lost track of the days, but there was no Friday feeling because, being homeless, there is no weekend.
My wife phoned me and verbally picked me up and pushed me forward. Is that what I have done for 17 years? Is that what we do as essential services? Is that the foundation which allows health care, mental health care and other services to do their vital work? Maybe. Sometimes people tell us, “Without you I would be dead!” I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated that as much as I do at this moment in time.
Meeting people in the evenings has kept me going. Vital human contact, not a nod of hello as you pass someone on the street, but conversation, stimulation, companionship. Without that I don’t know where my head would be? Without it, would the way I feel about myself be so much worse? I suspect so.
Yesterday I walked past a little Sainsbury’s in a nice middle-class suburb. I intended to go in, but a man was stood by the door with his dog, and I thought he looked at me with disdain. It was enough for me to carry on walking. As I walked away, I laughed at myself. I could have stared at him with equal disdain, but I had felt judged. I had felt as though I didn’t belong and even though I do, because I’m not homeless, homelessness is in my head.
After thoughts 1: Down but not out.
Yesterday was the kind of day I dreaded on the 14-day sleep out. The rain was heavy and incessant. I ran the short distance from my front door to my car, and at work, I ran from the car to the front door.
Some of the places I slept would have been ruled out by yesterday’s rain. The ground would have been soaked and I would have been stupid to sleep in places with puddled water.
There are days in the Archer Project when we just need to make sure people leave with dry clothes. Keeping dry is part of keeping warm. If I had been sleeping out last night instead of last week, I’d have been huddled in a corner of a church porch, most likely sat up. And if I had got so wet during the day, I would have spent parts of the night walking round to create body heat.
People who rough sleep tell us about the cold and the wet. Very few words are needed. It’s usually written on their faces and in their body language. A simple, ‘Bloody freezing last night!’ tells us they didn’t sleep well.
I was lucky during my fortnight. Since getting home I’ve noticed how tired I have been. I’m a morning person. It’s when I do my best work. I’m normally up at 6 am. Not this week. My alarm went off and I reached for the snooze button, but I wanted much more than a snooze. I am still playing catch-up.
I don’t think I had one full night of undisturbed sleep in those fourteen nights. I repeatedly woke to move, to get comfortable. But although I knew I was tired, I also knew I came alive when I met people. I enjoyed the companionship. Some people told me I looked better than they had expected.
I meet people everyday who summon the spirit to be cheerful. I know they are tired. I know they struggle with low moods. I know they have stories of serial abuse and neglect. I know the life they lead is incredibly poor. Yet, somehow, maybe, hope remains. We see it in humour, and their appreciation (not every day), for what we and others offer.
Five days after my sleep out, I think it is this sometimes-hard-to-spot hope that I find incredible and encouraging. An ability to defy all the negatives of life and get on with the next day.
There are somethings I didn’t blog about during my sleep out and I intend to share those over the next few days. I also want to say thank you to everyone who has read these blogs and shared the journey with me. the response has done more for me than you could possibly imagine.
Afterthoughts 2: And what I was really homeless.
On Saturday I had my Covid vaccine booster. On Sunday I had a headache. It wasn’t terrible but it was persistent and neither paracetamol nor ibuprofen took it away. I ended up dozing on and off in the comfort of my bed or a large armchair. I had dreamt about the armchair when I was on the street.
I had sat on pavements, on park benches, on upright chairs in popular burger chains or in churches. I missed somewhere comfortable to lounge. Towards the end of my fourteen-night sleep out my back ached, and my neck was getting stiff. My legs ached too, from all the walking. That’s when I had thought of home and a large comfortable chair.
This may seem like a really obvious thing to say, but the street lacks some basic creature comforts. I had a really lovely shower at City Taxis offices during my sleep out. I was very grateful. But it was a work shower. That means you get undressed in the little shower room, shower, dry yourself and immediately get dressed again. It is efficient. It’s not what I do at home. I sit, only half dry, on the edge of my bed and take my time. It’s a creature comfort.
Everything on the street lacks comfort. Sleep, sitting, dressing, changing clothes, cleaning – it is all grabbed when possible and it’s basic. During my fourteen days I was aware that I wouldn’t normally neglect my feet in the way that I did. When walking in the summer, the first thing at the end of the day was to take my socks and boots off. But when I was homeless, the end of the day wasn’t so clear. Bedding down isn’t necessarily the end of the day. I realised that on my second night when I kept my shoes on, ready to move, if needed. The nights were cold, and it seemed natural to keep my socks on most of the time.
I happened to meet a nurse who has worked with homeless groups for many years. He told me foot care was vital. Athlete’s foot, trench foot, fungal infections – all well-known, and just a stone’s throw away from some regular creature comforts – fresh socks and washed feet. I never saw the need to encourage people to take their shoes off in the day. That’s changed.
But there is a wider point here. The creature comforts I longed for were about good health. Bad backs, aching necks, bad feet are just the tip of the iceberg. Wet and cold weather have much more serious implications. And we haven’t mentioned mental health or the need to drown memories of past traumas in alcohol or drug use. The street is a health and wellbeing danger zone.
So now, with a minor reaction to a booster jab I find myself asking, “and what if I was homeless?”
During my fortnight on the streets, several women said to me that if they were to sleep rough there would be, as one woman put it, “an extra layer of vulnerability”. I realised I hadn’t ever considered the risk of a sexual attack.
I’ve known men who have been sexually abused whilst rough sleeping, but they seem isolated incidents. I never considered it could happen to me. Women seemed to consider it automatically.
I am uncomfortable writing this blog. A 57-year-old man sharing insights into being female and homeless? The reality is that I’m admitting my ignorance. After 17 years I thought I knew the issues of female homelessness. I probably do but I now realise how little I understand them.
I remember an incident of a woman who was nineteen. She came to the project seeking help. Her boyfriend had been arrested. She was alone and said, in the space of an afternoon, three men had offered to ‘protect’ her. She knew the cost of protection was sex with them and earning money for drugs by having sex with others. Shocking, isn’t it?
I asked the opinion of women I know well who have experienced homelessness. One told me, “if you are a homeless woman, you expect to be offered something in return for sex.” Her answer was immediate. She didn’t have to think about it. For others it was being female that made them desperate to sleep on friend’s floors rather than the street. Another, who had escaped domestic violence, simply said, “I couldn’t do that. It was too raw for me.” Her first response was to tell me why she avoided it, not that it didn’t happen.
Near the end of my fourteen days, I told a female colleague that I wouldn’t want to be a woman on a period whilst sleeping rough. It is theoretical for me. Clearly, I’ve no personal experience of menstruation. My colleague said, “without medication I’d probably murder Bob (her partner) on a monthly basis. Have you thought about those women who have it really bad? Or menopausal stuff? And no medication?”
No, I hadn’t. And I find it difficult to imagine what ‘really bad’ really means. And, aside from the physical symptoms, it strikes me there are other emotional and social implications I struggle to imagine too.
I’d mentioned menstruation because I wanted clean socks and underwear and thought clean underwear would be even more important for women. It was another colleague who said, “Yes, that’s true, but some women want to be as unattractive as possible. A bad smell is a deterrent.” Really? I hadn’t thought of that either.
Of course, women speak to women about being a woman. I am on the outside. What is obvious is that I don’t know the half of it, and this is too serious an issue to remain ignorant about.