We packed our bags with the essentials: a sleeping bag and a blanket, a phone for emergencies and to take notes and photos, and some change to give to the people that we were aiming to learn from on this night. We didn’t bring food, drink or any money to use for ourselves. The night was warmer than we had expected. There had been a solid run of freezing cold, windy evenings for a while and the three or four degrees we felt was a welcome surprise, but it hadn’t been planned that way.
It quickly became very clear to us that we didn’t have much of a plan. There wasn’t much to plan. There was very little we could definitively know in terms of what to expect, just a hope that we would be safe. We had taken to the streets to feel, at least for a night, what it is like to sleep rough. With almost 2,500 people thought to be forced to sleep on the streets every night in England we wanted, at the very least, to get some of that experience. Of course, considering we were two very privileged, middle class white kids hanging around York, we knew right from the start that we weren’t going experience nearly the same hardships as the people we hoped to encounter, talk to, and learn from throughout the night, but we wanted something. And this is what we got; hopefully now we understand a little bit more.
We had chosen this particular night because of a guy named Grant. One of us had run into Grant on a prior evening, given him some money, and just sat down and talked with him. Grant’s experiences on the streets were not at all close to what he was previously used to. A racehorse trainer from Wiltshire, Grant had lived with his partner and children in a happy, comfortable life until one night he came home from work early to find his wife in bed with another man. His wife had been unfaithful to him for two years. And just like that his house was gone and he was on the streets.
Grant is not alone, almost a fifth of homeless people are thought to be in the situation they’re in because of a breakdown in romantic relationships, making it the third most common reason why people find themselves on the streets. Grant can get a free meal three nights a week in the square near Betty’s tea shop but besides that relies on the kindness of strangers for food and rest. He told us that York students are generally helpful and charitable, but assumedly that’s only relative to the pertinent lack of charity we had seen that night. He was enthusiastic about our project, and seemed to support its intentions. He wrote down the details of when we were going to be embarking on our stay on the streets and said to meet him at the same place on the night. When we arrived as planned however, he wasn’t there. Perhaps he had been moved on, perhaps he had simply forgotten. It made sense though; when basing one’s decisions of where to be on factors including where the police are less likely to move you on from and where most people might walk past you with food and money, a couple of students writing a newspaper article seemed like a pretty small factor to take into consideration.
So we didn’t find Grant, but instead we found Becky. Becky was much younger than Grant, still old enough to not be considered for special consideration based on her age – which is afforded to minors and care leavers under the age of 20 – but young enough to have a much different experience of poverty. Becky was a victim of the single most common reason why people in Britain are homeless: she was unable to be housed by family or friends. In Becky’s case she had been kicked out by her parents and had been living on the streets for four months. She aimed, as it turned out many did, to simply raise enough money each night to get a room in a local bed and breakfast. This is not an easy task and there wasn’t anywhere else she could stay if she didn’t raise the money. In the past four months Becky has spent two nights somewhere other than on the streets. She was not hopeful about her chances but told us: “It’s so cold tonight, that’s why tonight I’m really trying.” It struck us how factors like that are so important to those on the other side of the parallel of the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Though we may consider ourselves to be fairly charitable, and willing to give spare change to rough sleepers whenever possible, it is unlikely we would ever have felt more or less inclined to do so depending on how cold it is. We had the luxury of not needing to think about that. A luxury that Becky, and others, didn’t share.
Terrence is older, probably, than both Becky and Grant. He seems to be in his fifties or so and while he was happy to talk to us, he was angry. Angry at the local government, angry at the fact that he as a “Yorkshireman born and bred” isn’t afforded a right to a home, angry at other homeless people. Some of this could be seen as misdirected bitterness, but in a situation where, as we were unanimously told by the people we encountered, the local and national government are dealing with you awfully, anger is an understandable response.
Like Becky, Terrence brought something to our attention. There seemed to be a massive sense of pride among these people. They were both very careful about not letting us forget the fact that they weren’t drug users, and according to Terrence he wouldn’t go to local hostels “if you paid” him, because of apparently high numbers of violent drug addicts. Terrence ends up telling us where the best place to lay down our blankets is, where is well-lit and where to avoid. It’s helpful, we would have been clueless otherwise.
Before we do lay down for the night though, we meet Shantel. Shantel has spent nine years on the street after her mother and stepfather passed away and travels around the country with her brother. Like Becky, Shantel and her brother try and raise enough money to get into a bed and breakfast each night. And like Becky they’re not always successful. She is optimistic about local accommodation though, while they raise the prices during tourist heavy times they do sometimes make allowances for her and her brother, providing discounted rates for a night.
Still, to those like Shantel who suffer from depression or other mental health issues, the streets can have an awful effect. Sometimes being out in the open and having so many people around you on busy streets is almost impossible. “But I have to do it,” she says. “To survive.” It’s not just psychological issues though, Shantel suffers from deep vein thrombosis and frequent chest infections. While she has luckily found emergency medical help, and had medicine provided, it was a long, hard process to achieve that. She also told us: “I don’t even have enough money for a sleeping bag, just this coat and blanket that someone gave me… It’s my thirtieth birthday in nineteen days, I hope it’s going to be good.”
We sat with Shantel for a while, as she asked every passer-by if they could spare any change for her. Very few people acknowledged her, she told us: “People just walk past you. It doesn’t take too much to give a bit of respect.”
Each of the people we spoke to who were sleeping rough told us that although many people are very generous, they experience a lot of aggression and unkindness from members of the public. They are often spat at and both physically and verbally abused by strangers. We were surprised to experience this ourselves, with one man lingering over us and taunting: “Can’t get work?” We were, however, given a total of £25 by passers-by in our night on the streets in York, which we gave back to the men and women we met writing this article and saved some to buy Shantel a sleeping bag for her thirtieth birthday.
Though figures on this issue can be hard to verify, at the time of writing this article the number of people sleeping rough in the UK has risen by 5% in just a year. A 2014 report indicates that 52% of those seeking help with homelessness are under 25. The majority are not in education and up to 74% of young people may be turned away by homelessness organisations due to limited capacity, an experience all of the people we spoke to seemed familiar with and disillusioned by. It is clear to see, however, that there is a great deal of work being done to help those sleeping rough in York, including RAG iniatives and YUSU volunteering groups at the University distributing food and sleeping bags across the city.
We are very keen to emphasise that in no way does one night on the streets qualify us to understand how awful homelessness can be, but we’ll leave you with something a young man said to his friends as he walked past us:
“You know you see people living like that and it makes you realise how lucky we are.”