Brian was abandoned at eight months old. Throughout his childhood, he bounced around foster homes, care services, and different social systems. He was adopted, but when his adoptive father died, he had no one else. He has had a string of drug addictions and relapses, but for now, he is clean. He was diagnosed with clinical depression, and has psychotic episodes. He also has a silver award from the Chelsea flower show. Brian is 34 years old, and he is homeless.
“Where I was originally from, I had an axe put through my door. I got my house robbed to bits. I got bullied. I ran away from home. All people get on the streets is the night shelter, or a hostel, which means if you’ve got a drink or drug problem, you’re never going to get clean because you’re stuck in a situation where it’s just never going to happen.”
For Brian, every day is a monumental struggle, as he attempts to get enough money to buy himself a cup of tea, or something to eat. As I talk to him, he rolls a cigarette in his grubby hands and his dog, whose name I don’t know, huddles and shivers in the gap between Brian and me as we lean on the windows of HMV.
“People get dealers coming to live in their house. They get scared. They’re forced to either sell drugs, or leave,” he explains, muttering afterwards. “Who would choose this life?” he mutters.
I have just told him about the Westminster City agenda to “cure” homelessness, arguing that providing food and shelter to the less fortunate “encourages” them to be homeless.
“Its bullshit” Brian argues, shaking his head. “I’ve been sleeping rough for years. People don’t choose to be homeless. A lot of people on the streets have got a lot of mental illnesses. How can they say they’ve got a choice?”
He’s right, but unfortunately, Brian’s story is nothing new. For years and years, there have been people like Brian sleeping rough, not knowing if they’re going to survive the next winter, or even the next week. And whilst there are people on the streets, there will always be systems in place to try and combat the homelessness cycle. And again, as long as these systems exist, there will be people both supporting and opposing them.
It seems that even people who have absolutely nothing are being affected by the government budget cuts. Michelle Price is Manager of the Winchester Churches Night Shelter, and as she hurriedly puts me in a room that is to be the new communal centre, complete with a coffee machine and a television, she rushes around, talking to a medley of construction workers, volunteers, and other administrative staff. The place is busy, and there aren’t even any residents. She sits down, then leaps up again, shouting goodbye to a fellow volunteer leaving for another town.
“Have you taken your bunny? HAVE YOU TAKEN YOUR BUNNY?!” She is referring to a chocolate bunny, much to my relief.
My main observation of this place is that it does not look like a night shelter at all. Instead, it looks more like a community centre, or a recreation centre, with open spaces, light and facilities to help people regain a modicum of control over their lives; Television, computers, Internet. Everything we know we take for granted. Even something as ludicrously arbitrary as a tea machine somehow seems like a luxury.
Compared to other shelters, this is like a five-star resort, with many shelters in the area getting rid of any comforts for housing space. A volunteer explained to me the differences between here and another shelter she had worked at, that instead of a seating space, shared rooms, IT suites or tea machines, it was more reminiscent of a psychiatric hospital from a horror movie; dark, barred off windows, and beds crammed in rows like army barracks.
“Sure they’ve got their capacity up, but are they doing anything other than giving them a bed? Are they helping them with their lives?”
I can’t help but feel the answer must be a resounding no.
Finally Michelle sits down, and explains with a heavy sigh the forthcoming reductions in their budget;
“Right now our funding is a third from the Hampshire Supporting People fund, a third housing benefit, and a third donations. I don’t know what the future is going to be like, but the Hampshire Supporting People Fund is going in the next 2 years, and with the current economic climate, donations are going to stop.”
It seems that this is coming at the worst possible time for the shelter, with records showing that they have had to turn away more and more people each year.
“I don’t think things are going to improve,” Michelle adds. “Most people come here because of family breakdown, abuse, or foster care. If you’ve been in care until 18 years old, when the support stops, where do you go? You have nowhere.”
The shelter has recently undergone massive changes, with the entire place under construction, with the money having been raised last year during their “Big Sleep Out” campaign, in which many residents of Winchester slept on the streets to raise money for the night shelter. The team has taken a voluntary hit, making their old offices into space for two extra beds, and making their new offices a smaller and cramped room.
The staff is not above taking risks to get results, with a viewing around the premises showing a bed in a room that technically should not be there,
“It’s listed as a crash bed, because technically we can’t have more than two beds in every room,” further adding “it’s not supported. We’re breaking the rules.”
It isn’t the first time the rules have been slightly broken, with an incredibly bitter winter of 2010 making most people living in houses cold and miserable, the homeless population were left to starve and freeze in alleys, but with a monetary contribution by the council, the night shelter was able to house and feed many more people than it is usually able to. Not enough, but the nature of the beast is that there is never enough.
Whilst there are concerns, here there is a general air of optimism. Spirits are high, and with the construction, people are hopeful. A resident, Stewart, happily bounds in telling his important news to anyone that will listen.
“I got an interview for the Prince’s Trust!” he squawks, running into his room to put his stuff down before disappearing off again. The Prince’s Trust is a voluntary organisation, which helps 19-25 year olds with courses of personal development, often if they are out of work, education or training. I’ve seen what the Prince’s Trust can achieve; Stewart’s interview can only lead to better things.
The shelter is not just a place of temporary accommodation, as their massive schedule maintains, they also offer a wide range of courses for personal development and rehabilitation.
It’s all very encouraging, but it’s a small help to a very large system of dysfunction, as the future of these courses is left unclear. Councillor Lucille Thompson is portfolio holder for communities in Winchester City Council, and with a sigh that I am all too familiar with by now, Lucille expresses her shock and disappointment at Westminster City Council’s plans. Concordantly, Winchester seems remarkably different.
“At the moment, we have no plans to reduce the spending on the homeless. We are increasing the options available.”
“We have approval for a program called Winchester Lets. It allows people on the streets to find houses that the estate agents might be reluctant to let to, instead going through the council, and having us pay the fees, claiming it back as benefits.”
The housing scheme offers council houses to those who desperately need them, but with a system like this, there are always problems. In this case, it’s that the waiting list comprises of three thousand people. Families and expectant mothers are high priority, and whilst this is of course understandable, with finite housing, people like Brian are left to wait years in band three. Not enough of a priority to house right away. Not so low a priority to have other options.
Lucille is the first to acknowledge the hundreds of problems like these;
“There is a lot more that can be done. We can always plough money into it, but we only have finite resources. Is this enough to cope? Inevitably, probably not, but we have to consider ways to address the situation with what we have.”
Despite fundraising, diligent volunteers, or even councils that want to help; the situation as it remains is in a downward spiral. Occasionally there is a flash of optimism; a renovated charity that could offer better opportunities, a teenager residing at a shelter who is excited about the possibility of getting himself back on his feet, a system willing to break the rules in order to give someone a place to sleep. All of this however, with its capability to lift people’s spirits, its opportunity to show people that perhaps things are getting better, all of it is brought to a hideous and sickening silence with the crystallizing image of a man, huddled against his knees, a hat at his feet containing a paltry 20 pence, nowhere to go but down.
Before I left Brian to continue his day as he had almost every other, struggling to maintain what little he had, he left me with a strangely insightful and prophetic warning;
“What the new government wants is what they’ve always wanted, to make us the enemy. If Winchester goes the way of Westminster, people who were criminals will be again, and people who aren’t will be forced to steal to survive.”