With thousands of people living rough on the streets in the UK, Sajid Iqbal and Moheeb Ali, spoke to one man who has been homeless for the last 15 years across the UK speaking of what life is really like living on the streets.
How did you become homeless?
I was going through a difficult period in my life and I turned to drugs and alcohol. As a result, I lost my house, my friends and unfortunately my family too. When I first hit the streets I only had the clothes on my back and if you’re not streetwise, you’re done for!
From being homeless, I’ve learnt that blankets are absolutely useless and the ones Red Cross gives out are no good either. Sleeping bags are a lot better and did keep me warm. There are places like Cornerstone in Manchester but you need to know how to make your way there. You actually need a ‘homeless buddy’ – someone to show you the ropes otherwise you’ll stay hungry all night.
What was being homeless for the first time like?
When I was 15 I ran away from home and within 48 hours I was in France. I had one rucksack with a set of dry clothes, a sleeping bag, a knife, fork, spoon, tin opener, passport and obviously a much needed map!
Describe your everyday life.
When you begin to realise that you’re living on the streets, your main priority is looking for a place and somewhere to sleep during the night. I sleep in a bin, often a charity clothing collection one, as they are warm, comfy and waterproof.
I wake up in the morning between the hours of 7 and 8. You don’t want people to know where you are because it becomes easier for them to rob you or abuse you and parks are no good because people can do whatever they want.
Cornerstone opens at 9AM which is a drop-in centre on Oldham Road. I visit it every morning to get warm brew, porridge and jam on toast. Hair dressers and other professionals come there too!
Oxford, Plymouth and Dover have good services for the homeless. In Royton, they don’t have an extended service but they do provide coffee and food.
Cornerstone and other centres in Manchester help you to find accommodation. All you have to do is approach them, tell them you’re homeless and then they make a record in their books. However, some would rather live on the streets because they don’t like the strict rules like being in at 8PM and being out by 8AM.
These places don’t charge you unless you had a bedsit that was being paid for and you were thrown out. Cornerstone gives you provisions during the day and a sandwich pack at night.
You can opt for begging for money, but if you’re caught by the ‘begging squad’, you’re banned from setting you’re foot in the town centre. Other homeless people begin to steal. They don’t steal from shops because the police are involved if you’re caught, but if, for example, there was a lady with an open bag, they’d help themselves to it.
Are there people of all backgrounds on the streets?
Yes there is. I was actually so surprised when I met Asians on the streets and I know of at least three in Manchester. There’s some Spanish and Russian too.
At one time in Calais in France, all the people were English guys, hitch hikers, but now they deport you or put you into big camps. I was deported a few times, but I came straight back.
Is there a lot of help available?
There is a lot of help to get you off the streets but there is not much help beyond that.
Cornerstone need to find you on the streets otherwise they won’t believe your circumstances. Then once they know your situation, they try to help you to claim some money.
If you have a ‘care of’ address like Cornerstone, then you can claim, failing that you have to go to the job centre every day between 9 and 9.30.
You can receive approximately £60 every fortnight. What tends to happen is that you are absolutely legless for the first two –three days and then you struggle until the next batch of £60.
You identified that there isn’t a lot of support for homeless people. What more do you think the charities who work with homeless need to do?
More than anything else, it’s the aftercare. It’s fine for them to help you to get off the streets and into a bedsit – That’s brilliant and I acknowledge that but it’s so easy for any homeless person to be back on the streets. The hardest bit isn’t coming off the streets – it’s staying off the streets and finding a job.
Everyone else is out there getting drunk and if you’re in a hostel, you feel like you’re missing out on all the fun, wondering why you’re not allowed to be out there with them.
Many people would say: ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ What would your response be to that?
Most homeless people who are living on the streets have a criminal record. Some can qualify for the requirements of certain jobs, but employees are conscious about the previous convictions that homeless people have.
Have you tried looking for a job?
I was lucky at times. I worked with my dad and can do demolition, so I’d help out. I’m on a rebound now, but was on a low for a long time, even as recent as 6 months ago. It’s like being on a roundabout. You could be there for a very long time. You do need help from outside agencies.
Do you think that other homeless people may not have the motivation to find a job?
There are some people who don’t have the motivation but if you really do want to get out of your situation then you need to try your best to do something about it. Some people, yeah. I know of a man who found himself a job through an agency. It was a temporary to permanent job but he only lasted for two weeks. Had he stayed there for longer he would have definitely got a job by the end of it.
Is being arrested such a bad thing? After all, they do give you somewhere to stay for the night and give you free meals too.
It’s not that bad. I know people who go to a shop, break its windows, wait for the police to arrive, steal something and then wait to be arrested. The police actually help you by putting you in a bail hostel. You can enrol on courses. The courses aren’t great but they can help you to apply for a job.
I wanted to speak to a psychiatrist about my problems but because I’m not on probation I would have to pay £200 per hour. If I was in court, I would have had that for free!
How easy is it to get a house if you’re homeless?
It’s not easy at all and if you’re in a hostel, it could take you between 2 months to a year. When I was living in Plymouth, the only way I could have a house was by paying a £800 deposit, but where was I supposed to get the money from to pay that? If I tried getting a house in London, they would send me up north.
Are you supported by your family? Surely there must be someone willing to look after you?
I’d say that in about 90% of cases, a homeless person will tell you that their families have turned their backs on them. I’ve heard of cases when people have stayed with one of their parents, but then sooner or later, they get kicked out and are back on the streets again.
I didn’t stay with my parents because I knew they would turn their backs on me. The only person who had the heart to not do that, was my 92 year old grandmother. She was in her 60s when I first became homeless.
She made me realise that I wouldn’t need to worry about where I was sleeping and where I kept my belongings but at times, because she was aging, I didn’t want to burden her. Everyone saw me as the black sheep of the family and it took me 17 years to get over that.
To what extent has your daughter helped you?
I have three daughters all together. They don’t want me to be on the streets and I think about my family all the time.
In Manchester, you see Big Issues being sold. What’s all that about?
Selling big issues is a way of helping the homeless. But there’s a catch – Homeless people don’t want to sell the issue because unlike 10 years ago when you earned some money from selling, it now depends on how many people will buy from you.
They give you 10 for free and ask you to sell them. With that money you buy more issues and sell them on. Effectively, you’re starting your own business. But because you’re on the streets already, the little money that you do earn is for food and beer for the night. That’s how a lot of homeless people see it.
Now Polish people are selling Big Issues too. They’re taking but not giving back. The English don’t want to sell them because they can’t be bothered. A lot of the people selling the Big Issue aren’t officially homeless - They have their own flats and bedsits. You won’t find them walking in the city centre at daft o’clock, nor see them in doorways because they’re all sleeping peacefully in their own homes.
Some homeless people go to derelict high rise flats because they’re dry and may still have the water supply on. It’s also very near to a soup kitchen called The Mustard Tree.
What do you think is the perception of homeless people by the general public?
That’s a hard question. Most people will walk past a homeless person because they think that the money will be used to buy alcohol and drugs but that isn’t always the case. A lot of times, money is needed to buy basic foods to survive.
How are the general public supposed to know who is genuine?
You wouldn’t know that a person is homeless unless you’re with them. You may have 2 or 3 genuine people who want some loose change to buy food, but there are others who want £5. The minute they have it, they head down to Aldi to buy some alcohol. Once they’ve sobered up a little, the entire process is repeated.
What have you missed the most whilst living on the streets?
I miss being at home and I miss all those things that I once took for granted. I begin to wonder what I did to deserve this and at time it feels like I’m constantly walking into a ten tonne wall. The nights are the worst. When I’m alone I think of the times when I had it easy, when I had everything, when I had a TV and when I could walk over to the cupboard and eat as much as I liked. It’s times on the streets that make you realise how much of the home life I’m missing out on and now I can’t do any of that anymore.
You need a lot of willpower to survive out there. What keeps you going through the day?
It’s tough, you just have to put a fake grin on and cope. I had my daughters and partners support most of the time.
What would you say is the future for you?
I definitely want to get back into work. After working for so many years, I find it difficult to live on what I’m earning now.
I was offered many jobs when I was working with my dad and some of them even offered more money. But, because I was going through a tough time, I didn’t want to take on any of them and commit. My head wasn’t in the right state. I could get a job with a cleaning company but it’s too far from where my daughter lives.
Do you think that everything that has happened in your life has happened for a reason? Was it meant to be? Do you think you’re in control of your destiny or are you being looked after by someone up there?
Sometimes I do and I count myself as one of the really lucky ones. I don’t know how I’ve survived all these years and having the experience has helped too.
What message would you give to people who are living with their parents?
I’d tell them never to take anything for granted, even the small things. One minute you have everything and the next minute it could all be gone. Open your eyes and appreciate what you DO have.