Rough sleeping stories: 'I lived in a sewer for four months'

Written by on December 19, 2019

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</figure><p class="story-body__introduction">Rough sleeping in England has more than doubled since 2010, according to official figures. But how do the men and women lying in shop doorways come to be there and what are their lives like? Here are the stories of some of the people we met living outdoors in cities across England.</p>

Thousands of people across England sleep on the streets. At the last count in 2018 there were 4,677 rough sleepers on one night.

That was a 2% drop on the previous year, but an increase of 165% on 2010, when there were 1,768.

‘Cold, scared and frightened’

Dirk Holding, 51, told us he had slept rough for much of his life and spent four months living in a sewer in Brighton earlier this year.

He has been on the streets on and off since the age of 10 after running away from children’s homes where he was abused, he said.

Mr Holding said he became addicted to prescription drugs and went to prison where he got clean.

But on release he was placed “in a house full of drug addicts” and left to sleep rough.

“You’re cold and scared and frightened,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Half the time you lay awake with your eyes shut but your mind open so you never really sleep.

“There’s stabbings and there’s fights and there’s abuse and there’s a lot of horrible things happen when you’re homeless. But the worse thing for me was I lived in the sewer.

“I felt I’m not going to live up top feeling shame and dirty, with people looking down on me and people thinking I’m useless – I’m going to stay in the sewer.

“So I made a bed in there. The first night it was freezing, I was soaked, there were rats in there.

“It was horrible, cold and wet, but I survived.”

Mr Holding performs street poetry and now volunteers for Sussex Homelessness Support, distributing donations to other rough sleepers.

“Now I try and give back now rather than self-destruct and feel bitter about society,” he said.

‘We’re not all druggies or alcoholics’

While most rough sleepers counted were men, 642 of those in the latest figures, 14%, were women.

Samantha Bird, 30, has been sleeping rough on the streets of Birmingham for two years.

“I was left in a house when I was 12 months of age,” she said. “I was in foster care in Worcestershire, Birmingham and Kidderminster.

“I came back to Birmingham and I lived in a shared house but my mental health got really bad and I was sectioned.

“Because my housing benefit wasn’t being paid my landlord said you’ve got 28 days to leave. I tried to explain to him I’d been in hospital and I showed him the letters but he wasn’t having any of it.”

Ms Bird said life on the streets was dangerous and she felt judged by passers by.

“A friend of mine was asleep and he got kicked in the face,” she said. “I’d rather people come and ask why are we on the streets than judge and go ‘look at her she’s a druggy, she’s an alcoholic’. We’re not all like that.”

Homeless manGetty
Rough sleeping in England

People estimated or counted on the streets on a single night

  • 4,677rough sleepers in autumn 2018
  • 165%up on 2010, but 2% down on 2017

  • 296were aged under 25

  • 642were female

Source: MHCLG

How many people really sleep rough?

The 4,677 people in the rough sleeping figures represent the numbers counted or estimated on one autumn night, including 1,283 in London.

However, to be counted a rough sleeper has to be seen sleeping or bedding down in the open air or in a building not designed to live in, such as a car park, doorway or stairwell.

Those who were in hostels or shelters at the time of the count are not included, even though they would be officially classed as homeless.

Figures published by the Greater London Authority suggest far more people will sleep rough at some point during the year.

They showed 8,855 rough sleepers were contacted by outreach workers at different points in the 2018-19 financial year just in the capital.

‘I sit under a bridge all day’

Anthony is living on the streets of Lincoln and said it was the second time he had been homeless this year.

“It’s down to drugs and coming out of jail. I got out of prison five weeks ago.”

Anthony sleeps in the doorway of House of Fraser with other homeless men.

“I keep an eye on Daz and Jack. I like to be close to people and look after them,” he said.

“I get woken up about 7am by the staff at House of Fraser, pack my stuff, get breakfast, get my meth and go and sit under a bridge all day.

“I’ve been on the streets for so long that I’m finding it hard even to go back inside. How sad is that? You’d rather be here on the streets than in jail.”

He asked people who passed a homeless person in the street to “just say hello”.

“You don’t need to give them evils and walk round them just because they’re homeless,” he said.

“It could happen to anyone just like that. I had everything at one point.”

‘I’d like my own place’

David, 28, said he first became homeless at 15 when his mum “kicked him out”. He said he felt ignored on the streets of Birmingham 150 to 200 times a day.

“If you were to sit down and talk to me for two minutes, that would mean more to me than if you turn around to say here’s a £20 note,” he said.

“Things will turn back around, I know they will. Hopefully within the next year I’d like to be in my own place but failing that a decent job would go down well.”

David said he felt safe on the streets.

“Because I’ve been in Birmingham a long time I know a lot of people so I know for a fact if I had any bother I could come into the city centre and I’d have some back up,” he said.

Updates from the Cannock Chase Radio News Desk via BBC Birmingham and Black Country


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