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A story of homelessness

By Ian Hembrow
February 7, 2020

Senior consultant Ian Hembrow shares the tale of his recent encounters with one young man affected by homelessness and the lessons for everyone anxious to help others in similar situations.

Supporting the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Shine A Light campaign is a practical step we can all take.

I FIRST NOTICED ALISTAIR while I was taking part in a housing research event in my home city of Oxford. On a searingly hot July day, he was sitting cross-legged on the ground outside one of the University buildings. On the sandstone wall behind him, he’d chalked the huge words: ‘PLEASE HELP ME, GOD BLESS YOU.’ And on the pavement around him were more chalk messages, pictures, little toys, and other knick-knacks.

Arrested and moved by such a direct plea, I crossed the street to talk to him. Alistair (as I discovered he was named) was wirily built, with a thick beard and the rest of his face burnt dark brown by the sun. His hands were caked with dirt and he had painful-looking sores on his exposed arms, elbows and ankles.

A life torn apart

Alistair budged up to let me sit down next to him on his sleeping bag, and told me his story. He was 32 and originally from Norwich, where he’d grown up with a couple who he thought were his biological parents. But when he reached 18, they explained that they’d adopted him as a baby and that they now wished to do the same again for another child. So they gave him £5,000 and sent him out into the adult world.

Uprooted from his home and identity by this revelation, Alistair managed to train and get work as a bricklayer, then set up home with his girlfriend Louise, a Biochemistry student from the local university. After some years together, they relocated to Oxford in search of better job opportunities, married and settled into a privately rented flat.

With a secure home and both employed, things were going well until one day in summer 2018, when Louise died suddenly and completely unexpectedly from heart failure. For the second time, Alistair’s life fell apart. His wife’s death pitched him into a vortex of grief and deep depression, which meant he soon lost his job, home and most of his and Louise’s belongings. By the beginning of 2019, he was sleeping on the streets of Oxford, and as a single person without an address or provable vulnerability, he was unable to claim welfare benefits or be accepted as statutorily homeless.

Trying to help

Having heard all this, and satisfied myself through some careful (but I hoped subtle) questioning that both Alistair and his story were genuine, I managed to mobilise some contributions and support from colleagues taking part in the research event. So the next day, I gave him £200 in cash, plus clean clothes and various contacts, suggestions for help, messages of goodwill and a group photo of the donors. Alistair was grateful, tearful, and gave me a big hug.

A week or so later, I saw him again – packing up his few belongings from where I’d met him. Alistair said that he’d told someone who’d stopped to talk to him about the support we’d given, who matched it there and then with another £200 in cash. Alistair had then taken all the money to a local deposit guarantee scheme and used it to find a room in a shared house. He was on his way to move in there now – so things were looking up.

A setback and a gift

About a month later, my mobile rang in the middle of the afternoon. It was Alistair. He told me that he’d been able to get some work with his former employer, but had fallen off a scaffold and become impaled on a steel bolt – seriously injuring his thigh. He was in hospital and had found my number in his bloodstained rucksack. He said that he didn’t know who else to call, and asked if I could help.

That evening, I took him some more clothes, food, and books, and I visited him a few more times in hospital over the next ten days. Each time I went to the ward, the real Alistair became more visible – he shaved off his beard and got cleaned up so that soon I was talking to a handsome, eloquent young man who was clearly benefitting from some much-needed rest, care and proper food. Alistair’s new housemates were being supportive, but on the downside, his employer was refusing to report the accident or meet his obligations for sick pay. So we talked through options to enforce his rights and get what he was due.

Just after Alistair was discharged from hospital (still hobbling on crutches from his thigh injury), some good fortune came along with a £500 cash grant from a charity that one of the people at the research event had suggested. 

A home is not enough

After this, I saw or heard nothing of Alistair for several weeks, until while waiting at a city centre bus stop one evening, I noticed a dishevelled figure in a dirty anorak making his way down the queue, asking people for money. On reaching me, Alistair’s face registered some recognition, but he looked dreadful – with the tell-tale signs of being back on the streets, seriously disturbed and most probably using crack or some other drugs.

He told me that, unable to work because of his injury, and still waiting for a Universal Credit claim to come through, he’d fallen out with his housemates and lost his room. He said that he actually felt “more comfortable” back on his own in a sleeping bag, away from the pressure of bills and responsibilities.

With autumn approaching, it was a brutal reminder of how precarious life is for someone once they’re sleeping rough, and how different aspects of disadvantage can intertwine to prevent recovery or escape from homelessness. It also showed that money and a home were not enough – Alistair clearly needed intensive, personal and expert support to re-establish his life.

I’ve seen him a few times since and had some updates from a wonderfully committed worker at a local homelessness and drug rehabilitation charity, with which he eventually engaged. He looks better and tells me he’s now living in a hostel, but after the twists and turns of Alistair’s recent existence, I’m no longer sure what’s true or what to believe.

In fact, it doesn’t matter – the misery and waste of his situation are all too real, and now only too common in every UK town and city. Stories like this are the sad narrative of our society’s steady slump to the bottom of collective welfare and community concern.

My contact with Alistair reminded me afresh of why, 35 years ago, I decided on a career in social housing. And it highlights the crucial role that the client organisations I work with now continue to play in providing homes and support for those who need them most. It’s also a powerful illustration of why campaigns and good practice like that promoted through CIH’s Shine A Light guide are so badly needed.

There’s strong evidence that giving money to individuals who are homeless and begging only serves to keep them that way. My experience with Alistair supports this, but it’s a difficult impulse to resist when you’re confronted with a fellow human being reaching out for help in such a compelling way.

Even if I was duped or manipulated by someone driven by desperate circumstances to exploit public compassion, I don’t regret doing what I did. And in the long run, if Alistair survives being on the street, I hope that the help my colleagues and I were able to offer might play some tiny part in him finding a better life one day.

Everyone deserves a chance. And we need to keep on telling people’s stories to seek a fairer world where homeless people aren’t simply ignored, blamed or abused for their own predicament.

The names and other details of some people in this story have been changed.