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People without homes, not "homeless people"

There is no such thing as a stereotypical "homeless person", as Jack Watling finds out when he meets some of the people living without a home.

A homeless man begs for small change on a street in Glasgow.
"If you are not dirty people give you this horrible look like you are a liar or a fraud." Photograph: Getty Images

According to Chain (pdf), London's homeless database, 5,678 people slept on London's streets between October 2011 and October 2012 - a 43 per cent increase on the previous year. This only represents a small portion of the homeless community, however. According to GrowTH, a Christian homeless charity operating in London, "We have found that only a small proportion of our homeless guests have actually slept rough on the streets.” Most move between friends' sofas, bed and breakfasts, night buses or makeshift squats and are not recorded in databases like Chain.

The diversity among homeless people is also increasing. Ollie Kendall, who helps to coordinate homeless shelters, explained: “While we do get some street drinkers and drug users, the majority of our guests don't fit the homeless stereotype. Most of our guests are individuals who have, for whatever reason, been without a community to care for them when things went wrong.” In the current economic downturn, many people are losing their homes because they cannot secure enough work. Others are economic migrants, trying to learn skills and find employment.

I first met Aaron on an icy night in early January. He was sitting crossed legged on a foam mattress and was filling out the crossword. As I crouched down beside him he looked up and grinned. “I never finish these,” he said, “but it keeps me thinking.” We entered into conversation. Aaron is 32; he started working in a glass factory at 17 and spent his early twenties qualifying as a joiner. By 25 he was self-employed, “doing some decorating, some carpentry, good quality work. I like my work.”

“Do you have a job at the moment?” I asked

“A day here, a day there. I get a few days, but never enough. Its hard to get a consistent job when you don’t have somewhere to come back to afterwards.” When the economy crashed, Aaron started losing clients. “Very few people were building and the people who were wanted to build it for peanuts. They wanted me to work for £40 a day. £40 for eight or ten hours! I couldn’t do that and pay the bills. I kept going for a while and then stopped renting and went to Europe. There was some work available in Germany so me and a friend packed up and left.

“It was a good move. We found jobs in a factory for a while. One day I was on the train home and fell asleep. It had been a long day. When I woke up my bag was gone along with my portfolio of contracts, my wallet, my phone, everything. I still had my passport and some money in my pocket but I felt completely lost. Without my phone I couldn’t contact anyone and without my certificates I wouldn’t be able to get another job. Our contract at the factory had finished, so I used the money I had to get back to the UK. ”

I asked Aaron if he had any family he could contact.

“There is my mum, but she is looking after my little sister and they barely make enough to put food on the table already. I don’t want to make things even harder. That’s what it means to grow up. You have to look after yourself. I know I’m not in a great place now, but I’ll find my feet.”

“What did you do when you got back to London then?” Aaron looks at me for a moment and then shrugs, turning his palms upwards.

“Kings Cross station, Liverpool Street station, Waterloo. I go to the job centre but they aren’t very sympathetic. They keep demanding why I haven’t filled out their book, why I haven’t got an interview, why I haven’t applied to enough places. They don’t understand how hard it is to apply when you don’t have an address or when you don’t look in good shape. These days I try my best and fill in the rest of the book with names of shops or cafes that I walk past. You just say you are on the ‘waiting list’.”

It is not immediately evident that Aaron has been sleeping rough. His hair is cropped short and there is only a little stubble on his chin. He is wearing a grey and blue scarf around his neck with a grey turtleneck jumper and a pair of blue jeans. The clothes look clean and undamaged.

“That is one of the things you have to decide when you don’t have a house. Do you want to look clean or not. It is very hard to get a job if you look like a mess and smell. Your colleagues start complaining too. I had that happen once, but it is very hard to clean yourself up. I usually find a sink somewhere and do my best. The trouble is that on a really cold night a hot drink can make all of the difference and no one gives you money if you are well-dressed. When you sit down with a cup on the floor and you are not dirty people give you this horrible look like you are a liar or a fraud. People do not understand that. They think that because you are homeless you should smell; you should look a certain way. It is a strange attitude that people have.”

Over the past two weeks I have interviewed over a dozen homeless people. None of them told the same story. None of them had the same background. One used to be a mortgage assessor in the City. Another worked as a professional musician for 25 years. There were both men and women (although predominantly they were men), young and old. The only common thread was that they lacked a community and shared a reserved and wistful smile that held the memory of better days and a distant hope for the future.

Xabier is 26. I sat down at a table across from a tall man in a black raincoat who was bent over a notebook, carefully printing out letters. As I took my seat he looked up and asked “you might help me: what is the difference between the word ‘should’ and the word ‘ought’?"

I blinked a couple of times in surprise before taking up the question. “’Should’ means that it is a good idea to do something. ‘Ought’ means that it is your duty to do something. It partly depends on who says it to you. If your boss tells you that you should do something then it carries an obligation, but I think ‘ought’ carries with it a moral obligation.”

“Thank you, I am trying to learn English and this is very confusing. People use both words and I do not really understand the difference so I do not know which one to use when I speak,” Xabier said slowly and in a deliberate manner, as though he were specifically choosing each word.

It turned out that Xabier is from Nicaragua and that after completing high school he decided to go traveling in Europe. His first destination was Madrid where he got a job as a waiter. Then, like so many young people in Spain, he became the latest victim of the economic turmoil ravaging the continent. “The bar had to be sold. No one had any money so there just wasn’t enough business. I lost my job; just like everyone else. No one could find any work so I spent a month on the street. That was alright, it was summer.”

“How did you end up in the UK?” I asked?

“A group of friends were going to the Pyrenees. They wanted to go to find jobs in France. They persuaded me to travel with them and I had some money that I had saved.” Xabier gave a short laugh before continuing, “you know, go and find work where there is work, but people want to give jobs to their own. That is fair. I did not have the language to work in northern Europe, but English lets you work anywhere so I came to London to learn English.”

“You have clearly learnt it very quickly and very well if you have only been here since the summer.” I said. Although he was hesitant, Xabier almost never used the wrong word and his pronunciation was perfect. “When did you arrive in London?”

“Two months and 10 days ago. I can say the words but I am worried that I am saying the wrong thing. I spend most days in the library now. When I arrived in London I slept a couple of nights in King’s Cross but then I met someone who would let me sleep at their house for only a little money. I stayed there until Christmas, but then I found out that he was taking drugs. Bad drugs. I did not want to stay there. I did not feel safe and so here I am. I need to get on the computer in the library to find some work, but they will not give me a library card without proof of address.”

I suggested that Xabier could get the library to send him a letter using one of the shelters addresses, then he can use their letter as his proof of address. “That might work,” he nods, “thank you, I will try it.”

Without an address, without a home, without a job and without a community Xabier remains hopeful. Aaron remains hopeful. Interviewing these people, I came to appreciate is that there is no homeless stereotype. The people living on the street are more often than not just like you and me. Homelessness does not have a fundamental cause, it comes about when people go through a sudden change which they cannot react to in time, whether that change is the end of a relationship, the loss of a job or a leap into the unknown. If it is going to be solved then we must not look down at someone lying in the tube station and see a "homeless person", we must see a person who does not have a home.

Editor's note: This article was updated on 29 January 2013 to amend the fact that the number of people who slept rough at some point in London during 2011/12 was 5,678 - much higher than the article originally stated.