Life out on the mean streets
On any given day there are about 70 cold, tired and hungry people living on the streets of Doncaster without a place to call home.
But while that figure is alarming, project leaders at the M25 Housing & Support Group - a charity which supports homeless people - are keen to point out that there is a human face behind the numbers.
Executive director Joyce Foster told how the group was formed in 1994 following the death of a homeless man due to hypothermia on the streets of Doncaster.
She said: “The emotions we had at the time can only be described as anger and outrage that this circumstance could have happened in the 20th century. It took the death of a man on the streets of Doncaster to finally result in formal action to begin the delivery of a homeless service.”
Joyce herself has undergone a rollercoaster of a journey, having had personal experience of homelessness when she was younger during a troubled period in her life.
The 53-year-old, of Campsall, said: “I was repeatedly homeless as a teenager. I can say with some authority that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, it is a very frightening experience and the feelings of vulnerability are profound.
“If you see a homeless person and you experience fear, I can assure you some of the more frightening behaviours homeless people may display are born out of a basic need to keep people away from them in order to best protect themselves from abuse, theft, exploitation and violence.”
Joyce became involved with the M25 project in 2013. Their centre, which moved into new premises at the former Doncaster Free Press office - an associated title of The Star - in Sunny Bar last year, offers a number of self-containted flats with showers, toilets and kitchen facilities for homeless people. It is also a drop-in centre where people living on the streets can get advice and access to programmes to help them beat addiction, get back into work and housing. The building also houses Made By U, an initiative which sells cut-price carpets to raise money to help sustain the M25 scheme.
Joyce said that while the charity is doing all it can to combat homelessness, their research indicates the number of people on the streets in the town is on the rise. She said the homeless rate in Doncaster has increased annually by about 12 per cent in the last several years.
She said: “In the past nine months M25 have provided advice and support to over 1600 people. Our own analysis would suggest that on any given day in Doncaster 67 people will be homeless. This includes those reporting to Doncaster Council and those informal homeless people staying at the homes of others because they have no home to call their own.”
Joyce explained that there are a number of factors which could explain the rise - including a lack of employment opportunities and the need for more education and training programmes.
She said: “The reasons for homelessness arise from multiple factors including redundancy, relationship breakdown, family disputes, domestic violence, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, inadequate life skills that may have arisen due to family/parenting problems, offending behaviour, mental health problems to name but a few. Very often, and more commonly so today, homeless people may have multiples of the issues listed above.”
So how can we solve the problem?
Joyce said: “The best form of help for homeless people is achieved through as normalised a living experience as possible. Every homeless person has some personal skills and ensuring that those skills are maintained and developed will ensure that homelessness is seen as a transition based episode. Retaining levels of personal responsibility for all aspects of life is critical in achieving a smooth return back into an independent and fulfilling life.”
One former homeless man Laurence Snaith, aged 60, said he would “be dead” if it wasn’t for the support of the charity. The ex-soldier spent much of his life in and out of homelessness since leaving the forces in the late 1970s.
He said: “There was a drinking culture in the army and it creeps up on you. Sleeping rough in winter - its impossible to describe how bad it is. It’s a vicious circle, you drink to escape.”
Laurence has since found a place to live in Doncaster following help from M25. He said: “You have to put the work in, but help is there. You can turn your life around.”
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Joyce said more must be done to raise awareness of homelessness with young people to reduce the risk of another generation of homeless people.
She said: “I recently attended local schools and was unpleasantly surprised when I asked the children if they had any personal experience of knowing or understanding homelessness. The number of little hands reaching into the air showed me how stark the reality of homelessness is. Making sure that we equip young people with the basic skills for life is absolutely essential.”
She added young people should be taught from an early age about “managing money, having a bank account and understanding everyday budgeting plans”.