Last year we published an article highlighting the ongoing issue of homelessness in Britain focusing on Liverpool, which has one of the highest homelessness rates outside of the capital, with recent government statistics showing that hundreds are sleeping rough on our streets each night. We are currently way beyond the national average for homelessness. One of the main points raised in that issue (Issue 61, Dec 2015/Jan 2016) was that the local music and arts communities appeared to be doing more to ease the growing problem than the government, through organisations such as Hopefest and We Shall Overcome, alongside independent support from the likes of the invaluable Whitechapel Centre. Despite the work of these groups, evidence suggests that the problem does not seem to be going away, as any trip into the city centre will immediately reveal. In revisiting that article we will see if the situation has improved or not, and by speaking to some of the people involved in helping the homeless find out what still needs to be done, and what you can do to help.
Bold Street, that great multi-cultural boulevard of food, drink and arts, is blooming and, in recent years, despite intense austerity, the thoroughfare has seen a rise in bistros, cafes, bars and alternative shops. Visitors to the city cannot help but be stunned by the range of international cuisine on offer, and in the evening the glow from each establishment appears warm and inviting. It doesn’t take long, however, to see the cracks, for in the doorways in between lie the stories of thousands of broken lives. Huddled in sleeping bags and beneath newspaper blankets live Liverpool’s homeless. To many, this is a royal pain in the behind – no-one likes to be asked for money, it is awkward and ultimately depressing and how many of us have harboured thoughts like, “If I give to one then I’ll have to give to them all” or “If I give them money, they will only go and spend it on drugs”?
It’s an all-too-easy way of ignoring the issue, but behind those worn faces are people and, in most cases, it’s not ‘their fault’: one instance of bad luck, a bout of bad health or a breakdown in the family can be the one step away from living in a shop doorway. Honestly, we don’t know how near most of us are from this often sudden descent into despair.
One person who knows from experience what it is like to find himself homeless and who is currently playing his part in helping others is Bernie Connor. A constant figure on the Liverpool music scene since the days of Eric’s, Cream and beyond, Connor is proactive when it comes to raising awareness and money for issues close to his heart. As I enter Buyers Club during Connor’s Lunatic Fringe event, I find him in his usual high spirits. The event is to raise money for local food banks, and the admission price can be either monetary or a bag of non-perishable foods. “It’s just like punk,” Connor shouts pointing towards the band on stage, describing how there’s no point sitting around but to get up and do it. “Someone has to.”
“What we are doing is ostensibly a benefit for food banks,” Connor tells me later on. “The idea for the food bank benefit was the idea of Jack Greene, lead singer in The Probes. He thought it would be good idea as they’d done a similar thing the year before and for obvious reasons, I picked it up and ran with it.”
Connor’s intentions run deeper than this, however, and he has an understanding of the people he is aiming to help. “The challenge is mighty. I’m not ever going to pretend I can put myself in a homeless person’s shoes. My own experiences from having nowhere to live, due to a breakdown in a relationship, were horrendous, and I had a network of well-meaning friends and colleagues who were looking out for me. I’m perfectly aware that most people don’t have that network of support; in fact, I would go as far as guessing that most homeless people have no support at all. Apply that to those who are drug and alcohol afflicted and beset by clinical depression – surely one of THE main symptoms of homelessness and poverty – and the situation becomes clearly worse. Where do you find the space to even think about your plight if you have more pressing items to deal with?”
This recognition of the fact that depression is a major factor in individuals becoming lost on the streets is vital to the common understanding of the public, as the plight of people left homeless is often overlooked as simply laziness and a reluctance to get a job. Depression remains one of the most criminally misunderstood human conditions; Connor is clearly aware that this situation is not improving. “I think [it] gets worse every year. Poverty and chronic housing shortage seem to be mainstays of 21st-century British society. There’s been a reluctance to look these pertinent subjects in the eye for many years.”
Looking at individual case studies provides an almost Dickensian feel to life in this supposedly forward-thinking city. Speaking to a homeless guy on a wet Saturday afternoon on Slater Street, I realised how diabolical life can be. This particular gentleman was in a wheelchair and clearly finding it difficult to manoeuvre around the hustle and bustle of shoppers and early-afternoon revellers. I gave him a pound, for which he was extremely grateful and shook me by the hand: I’m told that not everyone is like me and some people are “horrible”. “They take one look at me, they see the wheelchair and they turn the other way.”
It is almost impossible to fathom how a disabled man, bound to a wheelchair and clearly in need of medical assistance, can end up on the streets, feeling unwanted and ashamed. That his conversation is peppered with endless apologies and thank you’s suggests a man humbled beyond any pride he may previously have held.
One group of people who have made an incredible difference to life on the streets is Reallove. Reallove was formed as a non-political voluntary street team in 2015 by two founding members, Cathy Clements and Martin Atherton. They began by walking around the streets with bags of clothes and food and a trolley with soup and hot drinks, doing the best they could to reach out to people living on the streets and in need. Then Sian Cuthbertson joined them, providing more trollies, and the team became more organised. Bit by bit, more people joined and a Facebook page was set up to raise awareness of the work they were doing.
I spoke to Reallove about their work, and they began by telling me how valuable voluntary support has been. “Now it is a team of 13 and the public have shown us the most fantastic support. Without them there would be no Reallove. We work alongside other amazing street teams and kitchens and our aim is to work closely to positively supplement all the good work that goes on with the official mainstream services, and to point people in their direction. We are all working towards the same goal, supporting our homeless community.”
Reallove believe that “homelessness is a world that most people can’t comprehend, an alien existence.” We ask them to put it into some sort of context: “Imagine having to sleep rough because you have nowhere to call home. It’s freezing, it’s terrifying and it makes you ill. You are so tired because you don’t sleep for days on end, and when you do shut your eyes, you only have one closed for fear of attack. Hate crime on the streets is rife. Attacks on the homeless are commonplace.”
“National statistics show that all forms of homelessness, including rough sleeping, have continued to increase, and with further cuts to services and welfare reform it has been predicted that they will continue to rise,” Reallove continue. “Again, we have seen through our own voluntary work that there appears to be more people on the city’s streets, which is reflected in the amount of provisions we get through now compared to 12 months ago. Rises in all forms of homelessness are associated with changes in government policy, and it is important that these figures are measured in relation to these structural and policy factors.”
Here lies the nub of the problem: groups like Reallove and The Whitechapel Centre are left to pick up the slack in providing provisions for homeless people and rough sleepers when a coordinated government response is lacking – and as long as such groups exist, the government will continue to sit back and do nothing. Further, the divisive and punitive measures the government implements plunges even more people into the situation where food banks and homeless shelters are the norm, placing even greater pressure on the already creaking infrastructure of support. Sadly, organisations like Reallove and The Whitechapel Centre – often staffed by volunteers – are becoming ever more essential, particularly as the winter months approach.
Photo by Nata Moraru
“It’s important to emphasise that these figures must be understood in the context of the government’s austerity programme,” says Reallove’s Amanda Atkinson. “Reform/cuts to housing benefit and the squeezing of local authority budgets, the shortage of housing and the expansion of the private landlord sector with unaffordable rent prices, funding cuts to homelessness, mental health and substance use services, and a reduction in the number of hostel/shelter places – these have all played major contributing roles to these rising figures. Sadly, such figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and have been predicted to rise in light of further austerity measures.”
So what can we do to help, beyond passing loose change to individuals on the street? “It’s important that we keep chipping away at changing public perceptions of homelessness,” Reallove suggest. “It’s easy to forget that anyone of us could become one of them. They are all someone’s son, daughter, father or mother, and they all have families. Something went wrong and it led to them losing everything that they had and ending up homeless.”
Practically there is a great deal we can do. “People can also get involved by donating supplies to street teams like ourselves or by setting up fundraising events. There are around 15 street teams and/or static kitchens that exist in Liverpool that have been set up to help meet the needs of those living on the city’s streets or in temporary accommodation. All the teams work together and we coordinate our work but we could not do this without the kindness and generosity of the people that donate. Whether it be a pack of biscuits, a sleeping bag, or toiletries such as baby wipes, these items can make a positive difference.”
Please don’t ignore this growing problem: it’s not just about giving a handful of change away, it’s about changing attitudes, and that is something we are all capable of.
Find the full details of our relaunched #GuestlistGiving campaign for 2016/17 with a full list of affiliated shows here.
Reallove’s exhibition Homeless: The Human Cost Of Austerity is open between 19th and 27th November at Road Studios on Victoria Street.