Sleeping rough at Christmas: How it feels to lose your home
Ten years ago, Charly woke up on Christmas morning in a draughty school hall in Chalk Farm, alongside 150 strangers.
Despite the day being peddled as the most magical one of the year, for Charly, it was cold and unpleasant – and one the doorman admits he would rather forget.
Although he now lives in a one-bed flat in Chessington, all it took was a run of horrendous bad luck that led to Charly finding himself homeless in 2012.
Having finished renovation work on the boat he was living on in Teddington Lock, he went out to celebrate. When he returned, Charly discovered his boat had been stolen from the water.
It was never found, and because Charly had an outstanding late payment on his bank account, he wasn’t eligible for an insurance payout. Everything he owned, including all his tools and materials which he needed while working as an artist, was taken. ‘All I had left was the clothes on my back,’ he remembers emotionally.
Charly had no-one nearby to stay with and his mother had died, so he ended up on the streets, sleeping in church night shelters.
According to charity Centrepoint, around 30,000 young people will face homelessness this winter. However, establishing exactly how many people are living on the streets is notoriously difficult. According to the latest figures from October last year, homelessness charity Crisis estimated that around 227,000 people were sleeping rough, staying in vans and sheds or sleeping in B&Bs across England, Scotland and Wales.
That Christmas morning in 2012 ‘wasn’t fun’, recalls Charly drily.
‘That day I didn’t do anything,’ he explains. ‘We soon got shoved outside so I spent the day sat on a wall, next to a building in Central London. It was difficult. It wasn’t nice to know that there was no support.’
While families up and down the UK were settling down to Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, Charly had to rely on charity for food.
‘It was slops on a plate,’ he says. ‘I had no phone. No messages or calls. I never thought that would happen to me. I really didn’t. But it can happen to literally anyone.
‘I didn’t get into drugs and alcohol, but I understand why people do. Because if you drink you don’t feel the cold. If you get stoned, you don’t care that you’re on the streets. It’s a coping mechanism.
‘I had been working my entire life, but then everything fell apart. I wanted to work, I wanted to earn a living.’
Charly eventually ended up with accommodation at the YMCA. He trained up in security, got a door licence, and managed to land a job and enough money to get a home, but the threat of homelessness looms closer than most people realise, he warns.
‘Nobody can foresee what will happen tomorrow,’ he says. ‘I have been the head doorman for a pub for the past seven years. But someone could break my leg tomorrow and the next day I wouldn’t be able to work. Then what?’
Cassie Everson tells Metro.co.uk that she she had just brought new flooring for her small flat in Burnley when she lost everything.
She had been working in a care home and was happy, living on her own, paying her bills and enjoying life and her cosy, newly-carpeted home.
However, after falling ill with Covid at Christmas last year, it took her months to recover. She had handed in her notice and was due to take a new job, but she was so ill and exhausted that she was unable to start the role.
The bills racked up and before long, she was £4,000 in arrears. Terrified of getting deeper into debt, she ended the tenancy on her flat in August and became one of the UK’s many ‘hidden homeless’.
The six months she spent sofa surfing took its toll on her self esteem, her mental health and her relationships.
‘I had nowhere to call my own. I’d loved living by myself. But when I left my flat I just packed a few bags and left,’ Cassie, 22, tells Metro.co.uk
Sadly, this is a reality facing thousands this Christmas, as the spiralling cost-of-living forces them into unmanageable debt.
New research from homeless charity Shelter shows that almost a million private renters in England are facing the threat of eviction, with 504,000 of them having received or been threatened with an eviction notice in the last month. It’s a figure up a shocking 80% on the same period last year, while 482,000 private renters have fallen into arrears.
One in four – equivalent to 2.8 million people – are constantly struggling to pay their rent, an increase of 24% compared to the same period last year, and more than two thirds of private renters – equivalent to 7.7 million people – would struggle to find a suitable home this winter if they were evicted.
Cassie says: ‘I’d gone from having this nice flat, with everything I wanted, to sleeping on friends’ sofas. I had to leave a lot behind. It was only just starting out stuff, nothing special. But it was mine, and I liked it.’
Five ways you can support people experiencing homelessness
Tim Bissett, Director of the charity St Martin-in-the-Fields, which supports people without a home, offers this advice:
1. Learn about homelessness
Rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg. Many experience homelessness living in temporary accommodation, like B&Bs and hostels, or sofa-surfing.
2. Understand the causes
People become homeless for many different reasons, like unemployment, poverty and lack of affordable homes. Then, there are circumstances, such as leaving prison or care with no home to go to. Escaping an abusive relationship can often lead to homelessness.
And life’s turns can affect any one of us: losing a job, mental or physical problems, a relationship breaking down or substance misuse. In England, a loss of privately rented tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness – and almost 30% of tenants renting privately are experiencing in-work poverty.
3. Support homelessness charities
For example, St Martin-in-the-Fields’ urgent grants can transform a person’s situation within a few days – preventing eviction or helping secure a home. We help those working on the frontline and invest in strategic programmes to tackle homelessness. We also give food, hot showers, access to a washing machine, a computer, a phone charger.
4. Focus on solutions
People sometimes say homelessness is ‘one of those things that can’t be solved’. This is not true. There are lots of different actions from writing to your local MP to volunteering with a local project or donating to a local food bank or setting up a direct debit to a homelessness charity.
5. Be kind
Be friendly when you meet people affected by homelessness. Say hello, smile and perhaps listen to their story. See the person. And if you want to buy a cup of tea or a meal – ask them what they’d like. If you’re in England & Wales, use the Streetlink app or go streetlink.org.uk to alert the local authority or outreach service for the area.
While she took all she could, Cassie doesn’t know what’s happened to the rest of her possessions. ‘It’s probably in the scrap,’ she admits. ‘I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to take it away or store it. The carpets have probably all been ripped up and thrown away.
‘I went downhill really badly after that. I felt really depressed. I just lost it for a few months. It was the stress.
‘I used to help homeless people; give them money or buy them food. It wasn’t until it happened to me that it hit – how easily it can happen.’
Cassie applied for a place through the charity Emmaus Burnley and was given a room two days later. She now volunteers at the Emmaus Department Store, selling second hand furniture, and her plan is now to get back on her feet. There are 30 Emmaus communities across the UK, supporting around 850 people.
An itinerant lifestyle can be very difficult to bear, Carl Rock tells Metro.co.uk.
Preferring to be called by his surname, Rock, says that he was made homeless when he couldn’t pay the bedroom tax on his three bed Preston maisonette a decade ago.
He spent five years on the move, sleeping outside on the docks, inside fast food restaurants, in shops once the lights had gone out and even in a friend’s car showroom. He once tried to sleep sitting up in a public toilet, padding the floor with loo roll in case he hit his head when he fell asleep.
‘It felt like being in prison or something, although I have never been in prison. But that feeling – to have everything then to have nothing. I couldn’t even play my guitar. I thought this would never, ever happen to me.’
One of Rock’s only possessions was a bike, which he would lock himself up to at night, to keep it from being stolen. If the rain woke him suddenly, he’d find himself tangled up and tripping over the lock.
‘To keep my sanity, I had to just keep moving around – like a shark,’ explains the 60-year-old. ‘It was perpetual motion. I would go somewhere, and then think, where can I go now? It was so cold, the night air. My hands would feel 10 degrees colder than the real temperature. And then I would just shut down; I couldn’t hold anything. It just made me want to cry.’
According to the charity Centrepoint, two in five UK adults aged 18-34 have worried about being able to keep a roof over their heads in the last 12 months. Looking ahead, even more (49%) are concerned about how they will afford rent or mortgage repayments in the next 12 months.
Maria*, a 28-year-old Big Issue saleswoman in Birmingham, is one of these. She’s terrified of losing her home after her rent doubled overnight.
Along with her partner and their five children, she had been living in a two-bed house for six years, paying £700 a month, when they were evicted because the landlord wanted to move in.
They have just moved to the only house they could afford, which costs £1,400 a month. ‘We don’t have anywhere to go. It’s the only option. Otherwise we will have to live on the streets,’ Maria tells Metro.co.uk.
The rent will cost everything she makes from selling the Big Issue, with nothing left over to pay the bills. ‘The kids are cold. We can’t sleep through the night, worrying about what we are going to do,’ she adds. ‘How are we going to pay the rent? It is hard with food. I went to Lidl – it was £90 for nothing. A few meals, bread, chicken. It will only last a couple of days.’
Maria, who has to pay more than £100 a week on train fares to get to work, says the kids will have to go without this Christmas.
‘I can only think about paying the rent at the moment,’ she admits. ‘There is no money for presents. I don’t think they will have anything. I try my best every year to get them something. But this year they will have none.
‘There is too much worry. I wake up 6am every morning to come and sell the magazine. I try my best. People don’t understand how it feels to be in the street in the rain, in the cold. It is very hard. Standing on your feet all day, I don’t even go to the toilet, in case I lose a customer. I don’t eat anything from breakfast until I get home. I don’t want to spend the money.
‘It is so tiring. But I put on a brave face. I don’t want my kids to know how sad I am.’
If you would like to help fight homelessness financially, here’s how…
• Donate to charities like Emmaus and Shelter, which provide vital support to those experiencing homelessness. The charity akt supports young LGBTQ+ young people who are facing or experiencing homelessness. You can donate to them here.
• Buy a copy of the Big Issue from your local vendor or subscribe online here. The vendor receives 50% of the net profits
• To donate to the BBC Radio 4 Christmas Appeal with St Martin-in-the-Field you can call 0800 082 82 84 or click here. Calls are free from UK landlines and mobiles.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk
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