One of OurKingdom’s occasional first-person pieces illuminating lives often overlooked by mainstream media. This is a report from 'Bernard' to St Petrock’s, an Exeter-based charity helping people who are homeless, or vulnerably housed.
Dear St Petrock’s,
Owing to the fact that some people have observed me for a while and are quite interested in how I am doing, here is a short report:
Voluntary work: Voluntary work is short, as well as paid work. I had two interviews with the CVS [Council for Voluntary Service] last year. In fact, to get an interview with the CVS, you have to wait four weeks, that is how busy they are. After this I had phone calls with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the cathedral for voluntary work to make use of my language skills. Unfortunately, I have not heard back from them since. I am also sure that the voluntary work I will now start with the String of Pearls Project [“giving a voice to prisoners’ families”] was only possible with the help of my key worker Chloe, simply because she gave me a good reference in that case.
Work in Exeter is short. I hope England comes out of the recession soon. But even then, I had already three jobs. Two, I left because I didn’t like them and one when I have been made redundant. To find work is not impossible when you live on the street but you definitely don’t get a good job. There is a limit to how much you can keep yourself clean, while sleeping outside. And I always felt kind of tired and not the same like I used to be. It is a terrible kind of tiredness which sneaks into your life. I don’t believe that a lot of people can do it for long. I am sure in the long term you have to get mentally ill.
School and training: From the very beginning I hoped to get soon a better job (don’t have to stay on minimum wage and do a dull job) by reinvesting the first few hundred pound I am earning into some short training which would enable me to support myself in a proper way. It is not happening. My college courses were, of course, only a starting point anyway, but I was in Math and English only able to prove what I have learned earlier in life.
With the other courses like Bricklaying and DIY I was naïve because finally I learned only what an apprentice learns in his first 2 weeks of college. My Web design course had much more potential but unfortunately there are about 60 people in the moment who apply for any IT job at this level. I’d still like to do my HGV driving licence. I already have my provisional licence and should prepare for the theory test by now. My friends said, drivers will always have work. I am actually not sure if this is still true. You still need people who have the confidence to employ you after all. However, I go down this road and will see what happens.
I found studying for something while on the street stressful – due to the reason I explained earlier – and the sneaking tiredness which follows you all the time. The theory book for the HGV has 400 pages. So there is still a massive hill to go up and down. It is hard to imagine how to do it while on the street. I become physically and emotionally exhausted. I doubt I would be able to do such tough things again, as I have done so far.
If I would know of something, which would bring me a decent job tomorrow with 100 per cent assurance I would do it. But until now everything is a kind of game.
Accommodation: Accommodation in Exeter is short. I am looking actually already since 6 months. Never was brave enough to say, “Yes, I take it”, because it is so expensive.
In February I decided to take the step and prompted the question, “Do you have references of previous landlords?” And I cannot provide them because I have not rented any place for more than 5 years. Therefore I went to the Council to help me with my accommodation. All I needed was a landlord I honestly can tell that I have been homeless and sleeping rough, as I do have the money for my first rent and deposit now myself. The Council could not help me but referred me to Smartmove, as I asked. [Smartmove is a rent deposit guarantee scheme run by a voluntary agency].
I had an appointment with Smartmove two weeks later. Some people said Smartmove has a list with landlords who take ex-homeless people but this is not true. No such list exists. Smartmove have talked with various landlords. The prejudice against homelessness is enormous. When landlords hear the word rough sleeper, they see an old man with his bottle of whiskey on a park bench and this is not true anymore. Because accommodation is short landlords can be very choosy about which tenant they would like to take in.
Finally I realised in this time sleeping outside that the way out of homelessness still can be very narrow. And the longer you are here, the more likely you stay here.
For me, it is also not only about getting people a place to live. It is also about breaking the poverty trap. The longer you are on the street the more likely you will not get a job ever and you are on benefits for the rest of your life which means you have to live at the cost of the community and you are economically inactive. You get depressed, may start drinking if you don’t already have a drinking problem.
The homeless help in Exeter is actually very good. The help for homeless people is excellent. You can become very comfy on the street when you realise you can live like this but it has no bright future. And what services can not yet provide is a sustainable future for yourself.
How it starts: In the beginning I thought it will be only for a short time but after 14 months I am still here rough sleeping. I am not the only one. Most people believe it will not affect their life for long because they are better than others – I made this mistake – but the truth is it affects everybody. The longer you are on the street the more difficult it becomes to get off.
I am convinced it is the label you get which kills you in the end, not the drugs and not the alcohol some people take.
People end up on the street for a lot of different reasons: depression, drugs, alcohol, mental disorders, travelling away from home, debts, loss of jobs, prison, etc. But underneath we have mostly a few things in common: broken up families, broken relationships and unrooted and nowhere else to go and no purpose to life.
‘Bernard’ is a German national who had lived and worked in Britain for several years when he became homeless. He attended afternoon training sessions at St Petrock’s, an Exeter-based charity helping people who are homeless, or vulnerably housed, While homeless, he helped run IT classes at St Petrock’s, was found accommodation, attended college, took various courses and now teaches English as a second language.