BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
According to the homeless charity Crisis, last year 57, 740 households were accepted as homeless in England. In Scotland, 28,226 applications were assessed as homeless and in Wales 7,128 households were threatened with homelessness. Homeless people are over nine times more likely to take their own life than the general population. On average, homeless people in the UK die at just 47 years old.
The reality is that Government statisticians do not really know how many people are homeless. Street counts are notoriously unreliable (cynical counters in the past counted those lying down as homeless while those standing as passers-by) while many homeless people do not show up in official statistics at all. How can the Government – cynical or not – be expected to count sofa-surfers or the rural homeless people living in hidden-away locations?
Recently, I was stunned to visit a rural campsite as part of a rural homelessness awareness campaign and to discover scores of homeless people living in tents alongside the pitches filled by the paying British public and foreign tourists. Homeless people like the campsites as they are cheap places to stay for long periods and have washing facilities located onsite.
It was there I met Jane, who lived in a two-man tent with her pet spaniel, Benjie, not far away from the camp-site pitches occupied by RV’s and Caravans worth many tens of thousands of pounds. Jane showed me around this tent area of the private campsite and pointed out the homeless people living there amidst other non-homeless guests. This was Jane’s ninth campsite in eight months. Camp-site owners know they could lose their licenses to operate by allowing homeless tenants so are obliged to ask those they suspect of homelessness to move on.
“At every rural camp-site there are people like me,” Jane told me. “We homeless people recognise each other but nobody can say anything to help. And it’s not just the camp-sites, people pitch small tents in fields and woods, empty barns. The tents of homeless people can be destroyed without redress – or taken away, as lots of town councils do. Farmers are worse. In December, in a field near where I was pitched at the time, the tents and pitiful belongings of lots of homeless people were bulldozed into the ground by men who turned up with dogs and lights at 3 a.m. The land hadn’t been used in a generation. In the local paper the next week, people were applauding the farmer’s actions.”
All Jane’s worldly belongings were in her tent. A laptop, a bag of clothes, a shoebox full of family photos and other mementoes. Her world reduced to a collection of rucksacks and holdalls which, at a moment’s notice, she could lift and move onto her next sanctuary somewhere across Britain. I noticed a half-used bottle of expensive Chanel perfume reminiscent of more buoyant times.
Jane’s solution for homelessness is clear-cut. She used to have a home and the time to think before homelessness made her think from hour-to-hour, day-to-day and prevented any kind of reasonable planning. “Homeless charities are generally very kind,” Jane told me, “but they don’t solve the problem. What’s needed is not advice – it’s about three months in a clean, warm, safe place, which can be given as an address to seek jobs and get one’s life back on track.”
Without a physical address the homeless cannot claim benefits. In the meantime, they rely on food banks and charity, or crime. They live hand to mouth and are often dealing with mental health problems, extreme poverty and threats to their well-being. Jane told me how she had pitched her tent near an idyllic beach over Christmas but she moved into campsites soon after out of fear of foxes, which had attacked her and Benjy.
I ask Jane where she will be in five years’ time. And her reply is no holds barred: “Out of this or dead. And since I have no intention of dying just yet, that means I have to get out of it. I have plans. Spring helps. At least I can sleep now, and therefore function better, and where I am now, there are more jobs. It gives me hope.”