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Living on the streets is a cycle that is very difficult to find a way out of, says Christopher Ubsell. After spending 10 years sleeping rough, he made escaping the cycle into an all-consuming obsession. Here’s what he found out on the way:
1. The majority of day centres have food; washing facilities and showers; things to do during the day; and, most importantly, key workers. My favourites in London are Ace of Clubs in Clapham, The Connection at St Martin’s and The Manna in London Bridge. Find those local to you in the Pavement’s listings. The people who work in these centres want to help and mostly have the ability to refer you to hostels and other specialist services. Ask for the help. Tell them you want to see somebody. The centres will have computers as well, so you can do your own research, and phones, so you can ring around.
2. You’re going to have to take the initiative here. Get help for issues with addiction and/or crime – I’ve had experience of both. Don’t just expect that you’ll sign on the dotted line and they’ll give you a place to live. You have to do the research and the legwork. You won’t get it on a plate.
3. Libraries ain’t just there for show either. You can access computers too, so go inside and find the wealth of information at your fingertips.
4. Set up an email address and try to buy a phone. People need to be able to contact you – the Council, day centre workers, maybe probation. You can claim JSA and other benefits using the day centre address to help with the costs of a mobile and you can find one from as little as £14 (with £10 credit) from well-known retailers. Charge it at the library or any public building with plug sockets such as the Royal Festival Hall in London. Mail from potential landlords can also be directed to the day centre.
5. If you do get intel about any direct-access hostels in your area, apply for all of them. They will usually keep you there for anything from a couple of weeks to three months before moving you onto somewhere a little more permanent but not quite.
6. If you do end up on the streets, try to sleep out in the open. It sounds daft, but you have to weigh up the risk of being attacked against the need to be seen by an outreach worker. This is by far the quickest method of getting help. I went online in the library and reported myself as sleeping rough in Lambeth. This can be done anonymously. Within a couple of days, they had come by and woken me up for a chat. Unfortunately, the emergency accommodation in Lambeth was reserved for those with drug issues, a category I didn’t fall into, so it was back to the drawing board, but you may have a little more luck in your area. Council outreach teams can be contacted through their websites.
7. Try to avoid being drunk or high in areas that are regularly patrolled by the police. And stay clean and warm, as these two components are, without doubt, the most important. Pay special attention to your feet and extremities.
8. Above all else, be proactive. See every new person you speak to as an opportunity to gain vital information. Other homeless people have info to offer, too, even if it’s something simple like the time and location of a food run. And make sure you always get a copy of the Pavement.
9. Private landlords sometimes take you on directly from the streets if you are entitled to Housing Benefit. Some charities that will pay the deposit or rent in advance. Finding these landlords is usually the hard part. Councils used to have lists of them, but they stopped doing this. The best thing is to search online for a day centre with workers that have used these schemes before.
10. Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today.