Having worked previously as a police officer in Central London, I have come into contact with people who are homeless and been in a position to hear their stories. Because of this, I came to realise that homelessness is a very complex issue. Whilst many might make assumptions about why people are homeless, it is always better to treat each person as the individuals that they are. Certainly in my experience a majority of people on the streets of London were dealing with mental ill health and there was simply no adequate treatment for them. This often led to self medicating and as a consequence, addiction.
I also recall a lot of ex service men and women ending up on the streets. Their diagnoses I now realise as a psychotherapist, would be deemed to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was not as well understood as it now is. I know for certain that there was a retired magistrate who lived in a back street doorway and an ex police colleague who lived on the street. Each individual found themselves in this position for a myriad of reasons.
It is estimated than one in three families in England are a monthly pay packet away from losing their homes, according to research by Shelter (www.shelter.org.uk). That is a very sobering thought and should we find ourselves in that position of knowing how tenuous a roof over our heads might be, there is a good chance that this would create anxiety, depression and an inability to work.
The lady in the photograph above was someone I saw on a daily basis whilst in Cordoba. She haunted me as I saw such pain in her face. It was only upon sitting with her that I noticed that she had numbers tattoo’d onto her forearm. This had a profound effect on me as I imagined how her life had been and how it could be that she was to end her days on the streets. I can never imagine the horrors that her eyes might have witnessed. Whilst I will never know her story and why she is on the streets, it can be quite safe to assume that something traumatic has created her situation.
Ask yourself what your perception might be if you were to see these men with the dog, smiling and giving the thumbs up. Each man is without a permanent address so they can not get jobs. Without jobs, they can not afford housing. The man on the right had been sent to live in France with his grandmother due to the death of his parents. When his grandmother died, he had to come back to England to no family, no friends and no support network. I asked if I could take their photograph and they said yes. They asked me if it was ok if they smiled as they weren’t sure how this would come across due to the fact they were on the streets. When I offered them some money, they refused. They asked that if I was ever to write about them, to be sure to say that they and many other homeless people do not blame immigrants for their situation, but the government.
I saw the man above sitting outside a supermarket with a Beagle. I asked him if it was his dog and he said no, people just leave their dogs with him while they go shopping. I asked if they gave him money to do this and he said no, not generally. I asked him about the tattoos on his hand and he explained that they were the names of family members who had died in a house fire. How can we ever know how we would cope with such utter tragedy? Could we ever be in a house again after losing our family inside a house? How would we cope with the trauma and grief?
I spent some time with the man above who actually appeared to be quite an intimidating character. He was hugely built and wore an eye patch. He was always in late night bars sitting alone with a drink of lemonade. His story was that he had been the victim of a racially motivated attack whereby he had lost an eye. One night he asked me if I wanted to see what he kept in the boot of his car, and he produced the above. He was actually not intimidating at all, he was frightened and worried that he would be attacked again, so was in a constant state of high anxiety. He had been a successful businessman prior to the attack and now all he had was a car that he lived in with a few belongings that he carried with him. Most important to him was a necklace with a cross on it from his late mother.
These are the stories behind some people who have found themselves with no place to live, who have slipped through the cracks in terms of mental health services and social services. It is so easy to judge, we are all guilty of it. But think of it this way, how many people do you know would intentionally put themselves in the precarious position of having to fend for themselves out on the streets with no shelter, no support, no safety? It is not a lifestyle choice, it is a very sad indictment of how little care is afforded to people who are genuinely in need.
Photographs copyright KJRhodes