After running away from home at 14, Jamie has spent 38 years, more than half of his life, on the streets. But in the past six years he has turned his life around. With the support of Crisis and other homelessness charities, he not only managed to kick the heroin addiction he developed whilst on the streets but also learned to read and write.
Now, he’s a proud poet with more than 400 poems to his name and has even taught a creative writing course for other homeless people.He has been an active member of the Homeless People’s Panel, which was formed during the 2005 General Election to educate politicians on the issue, and writes a blog on homelessness.
Jamie has joined with You and Yours to provide a voice we all too often don’t hear – someone who’s been on the streets and survived.
A picture of homelessness
Forty Christmases have been and gone since homelessness was brought to the fore and we are still talking about it and what it does to people’s lives.
The myth that these are the people that want to live this way was dispelled years ago. I have been there - I lived the life not by choice but out of sheer necessity. I know what homeless people are going through.
When you first arrive on the street there is a certain apprehension but no clue as to what will happen. There is also a mild fear but there is that hope that everything will turn out fine and nothing phases you until it gets cold and rains and you’re soaked to the skin or you have no money in your pocket and are really struggling to survive. This is what I call the desperate days.
When you think about stealing and you start off by shoplifting bars of chocolate just to ease the hunger you feel, then you find out that there is a soup van that gives out free tea and sandwiches. So you become part of the homeless crowd waiting for it every night. It’s then that you notice how people look at you in a certain disapproving way.
Then one day you get fed up of having nothing. You pluck up the courage to sit down and beg because that’s all that’s left for you to do. You sit there looking down at the floor not wanting to look into people’s eyes because you’re ashamed. Then the days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months, months into years. You get used to it. It becomes a way of life. You start to mix with other homeless people who survive by drinking or using drugs and in the blink of an eye you find yourself doing exactly the same. By the time you realise you have a habit it seems it’s too late and there is nothing left but the daily chore of drink and drugs. That’s how I felt everyday of the week but something changed. I went to my first crisis open Christmas where people treated me as if I was a person, not as someone to be looked down upon.
I have heard about all these great schemes charities and the government have come up with this year. But how do you get someone to take that first step. Crisis has part of the answer at their open Christmas centres and that is normality, being treated like a real person makes a real difference to most homeless people and by engaging them in conversation or just listening is a starting point. Giving people that first glimmer of hope, gives homeless people their first insight into what could be. It’s not about forcing people to conform as some have had terrible lives but it not plain sailing. Some have major drink and drug problems and to add to that, ill health. Getting these sorted is a high priority but that is the start, the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are all sorts of problems and reasons for people becoming homeless and once you start the process of engagement you can start solving the problem. The next step I think is re-education. It is just another part of the solution as most people lose their confidence and skills once on the streets and quite a high number of homeless people cannot do the simple things like reading and writing. I could not but can now - as you can see.
Although there are things in place for sixteen to twenty five year olds, in most cases, it’s a problem of access. If you are over twenty-five life just gets tougher. There simply is nothing unless you look far and wide and then it’s just luck in finding something.
Then there is what is called the revolving door; people repeatedly becoming homeless. This means loneliness, old habits and not being able to cope.
Life on the streets may seem simple but let me assure you it’s not.
The solution to homelessness is not just about a roof over your head. It’s much more than that. It’s about integrating homeless people into their community, a community that has almost forgotten they exist. Most homeless people, especially those over the age of forty-five, have already given up on living a comfortable life and having a place to call home. If you have a drink or drug problem, then you don’t think about a home. Drink and drugs are the priority. This I know from first hand experience.
It is because of this that we have people constantly becoming homeless. One in five people who have been homeless at one time or another have had a flat. The fact that this cycle keeps repeating is a problem in its self and will continue until we have the support and services in the right places.
Of course, after that there is the problem of someone who’s got to “move-on” stage from temporary accommodation or a hostel, only to find themselves places in an unsuitable property.
Since the mid sixties there has been constant talk about housing and homelessness and how the problem should be remedied. In fact the Government of the time claimed that homelessness would be eradicated within twenty years - that was forty years ago. On the face of it some problems do appear to have been tackled by a variety of Government initiatives such as the 2002 Homelessness Act which dictates that local authorities must have a homeless strategy.
Sure numbers of rough sleepers are down - by Government reckoning by about two thirds since 1998 - but the problem has not gone away, instead the new generation are much less visible - often sleeping on friends’ floors and sofas, or in hostels and in substandard temporary accommodation.
In the Right to Buy mania of the Thatcher era why, when councils sold off their housing stocks, were they not allowed to spend this money building more social housing? This has meant we have as many as 380,000 adults stuck in hostels in bed and breakfasts, squats and sofa surfing. According to research by MPI for Crisis this could mean that there will be one million people in temporary accommodation by the year 2020.
It's easy for Governments to come up with facts and figures that make it look like things are going in the right direction but I know from my experience the situation is getting worse. For a country with the resources we have, I want to know why all the talk but no action?
No previous government has achieved such a reduction on rough sleeping. So we must give credit where credit’s due, but at what price has this been achieved?
Hostels and bed and breakfasts were meant as a temporary housing solution but in many cases have turned into long-term accommodation because of the shortage of social and affordable housing.
The government is concentrating its efforts on homeless families but single homeless people have to be part of the solution as well. They need to be integrated within communities, not put into areas where they have no community ties or any of the help they need available. A range of housing is required. Homeless people need the right house and location and the support required and the right access to deal with issues they may have.
My own experience is of being placed in ‘hard to let’ accommodation. I have been burgled four times and there’s a drug den in operation upstairs and several across the road.
Crisis have come up with the concept of the ‘urban village’, which consists of mixed community housing, bringing together key workers and the homeless to live independently but with shared support services such as a doctors surgery, cafe, church, shops. This I feel is what is needed to help all.