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Surviving Homelessness
Part 4

by survival expert James Mandeville

Homelessness part 4: reader rating= 4.5

Looking after yourself / keeping safe / minimizing personal risk
As a marginalized, despised and rejected member of Britain's caring society you have to be smarter than the average bear if you plan to sleep rough even for a short period. Keep your possessions down to the bear minimum and travel as light as possible, be prepared to move at a moment's notice.

Looking after yourself

Personal hygiene
It is not smart to draw attention to yourself. One of the musts is to keep up your personal appearance, this means keeping washed and your clothes clean. Both these are very difficult to do when living rough. If you can manage to look neat, tidy and clean, then people will react better to you despite your bad fortune and you will have easier access to places where there are toilet and wash room facilities, such as department stores, libraries, colleges and public buildings. Personal hygiene is important also for your own health's sake and to keep up your self–confidence and to make you feel as good as possible about yourself. So how to set about it?

Looking well groomed aids self–esteem. There is a charity of hairdressers who will cut the hair of homeless people free of charge, if you are lucky enough to have a member in you area give it a go. Details can be found on https://www.haircuts4homeless.com. If they don't operate in your area visit the library and look up how to cut your own hair (beard) on the Internet using scissors. A sharp pair of hairdressing shears are expensive £12.00 upwards but they are a good investment. You need a good comb and a mirror, you're set to go. If you have a friend who can help you it makes things easier if you trust them.

Washing can be a problem and you need to make use of public toilets. Recce the best facilities in your area, choose one with liquid soap and paper towels, hotels are good for this, as are the local library, council offices, etc. Find a time when there are few people around then quickly wash face and under the arms. Baking soda is very cheap. Pat baking soda onto your underarms to neutralize body odor. Use a wet towel for lower parts and try to clean essential areas every day. You can also wash your hair in public facilities but for this you will need a cup to rinse the soap off.

Washing clothes in a public convenience requires some nerve but just go for it. Take a plastic bag with you, wash one garment at a time and take it away wet to dry later. Simple soaps like shower gel work best for this, they clean the clothes very well and are quickly rinsed away. Drying clothes in winter is difficult and a good way to do this is to go to the library, chose a seat near a radiator and hang a single garment over the back of your chair as near to the radiator as possible. It may take two or three visits to dry one pair of trousers or a T–shirt.

Looking after your teeth is important. On the NHS you can get free dental treatment; talk to your local Citizen's Advice to help you with this. Most dentists will give away a free toothbrush and you can use baking soda as a replacement for toothpaste if you can't afford toothpaste.

Keeping warm
Only carry the bare essentials as you have to carry everything you own with you. Work on the three layers of clothing principle: an inner layer to wick away sweat, a warm middle layer and a wind and waterproof outer layer. Duplicate clothes should be limited to a spare inner layer to wear when the other one is being washed, spare socks and underwear. You can limit clothes washing to inner garments and socks only for quite a long time. If you are in a cold climate, you have to have a hat, scarf and gloves to keep extremities warm. Try to source clothing and shoes from charity shops and do not be shy about haggling over the prices, they want to shift the goods but these shops are increasingly raising their prices as people who do have money think it fun to find secondhand and retro items of clothing and this demand has hiked up prices. Tell the shop person you don't have a lot of money but be prepared to have to pay something as there is no charity in the charity shops. If you can get hold of them, buy a long heavy duty cycle cape and waterproof leggings as this will keep you dry even if you have to sleep under a tree or in a shop doorway.

Keeping safe
Although sleeping rough leaves you vulnerable it is better not to be tempted to carry an offensive weapon like a knife. Unless you have military training it is more than likely assailants may take the knife from you and use it against you, don't give anyone the means to make an attack on you worse. Of course, it is illegal to carry a knife in most countries and you will be in serious trouble if you are caught with a knife in your possession or if you injure someone with a knife. But you are allowed to defend yourself if attacked and to this end get hold of a golfing umbrella, find a good secondhand one, as this will be stronger than a cheap new one. A large umbrella is an efficient way of sheltering from heavy rain, it makes a good weapon to fend off unwelcome attention from humans and dogs, and it is not regarded as a dangerous weapon (unless you deliberately stab someone in the eye with it, in which case, you will be in serious trouble). Fighting off an attacker with an umbrella uses the same skills cane fighting. Look this up on the Internet and practice the moves. If you have the possibility, join a club and learn self–defence techniques, sometimes membership of these clubs is free. The best way to stay safe is to be careful of your location and stay vigilant. If possible always try to walk away from trouble rather than being confrontational, there is no shame in avoiding trouble, even elite soldiers are taught to avoid unnecessary conflict.

Bedding needs careful thought if you are genuinely sleeping rough; if you are sleeping in hostels and shelters your needs are different. If you are using a lightweight tent or if you are sleeping under a tree it is essential to get as far off the ground as possible and to this end use a lightweight plastic foam sheet, the thicker the better. A folding camp bed is a worthwhile investment if your load carrying capability permits an additional 3.5 kilos of cargo. A tent is, of course, preferable to sleeping out in the open and if you plan to get a tent, choose one with a built in groundsheet, such as, the Wild Country Tents Zephyros 2 EP Tent that weighs just 1.85 kilos and costs under £200. This reduces the risk of flooding and attack by insects such as ticks and lice.

If you are sleeping outside always sleep fully dressed and tuck trousers into your socks, try to protect your neck and face. If you can afford it use an insecticide cream and do not have bare arms and legs or you will certainly get bitten. Tick bites in particular can be dangerous as some ticks can infect you with Lyme's Disease. To keep warm you have the choice of using a sleeping bag or a couple of lightweight wool blankets. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. In a sleeping bag you are vulnerable to attack and it is not easy to escape from a bag if someone sets light to it or to your tent, whereas, blankets do not so easily catch light and can be thrown off, leaving you better able to protect yourself. On the downside, wet wool blankets are very heavy and difficult to dry. Fleece blankets are cheaper, lighter, warmer and dry faster.

Sleeping indoors – squatting.
In winter months it is wise to seek shelter indoors in a hostel or look for an empty building, outhouse, or barn (if you want to run the gauntlet of the Vagrancy Act). If you move into premises owned by someone without permission you are squatting. If you decide to squat you need to know the law. In September 2012 section 144 of the LASPO (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) in the UK made it a criminal offence to trespass (squat) in residential properties with the intention of living there. The definitions in the law are open to some discussion, but if a building or part of it was designed for people to live in before you moved into it, it is defined as residential. [If you live outside the UK you should carefully research the trespass laws in your own country as these vary greatly from place to place.] If you do trespass in a residential property with the intention of living in it, the owners or their agents cannot remove you or they will be committing an offence by forcing entry to a building which is occupied, and this includes squats. Only the police force can legally force entry and evict you, and they will do so, and arrest you.

The new September 2012 law does not apply to commercial property, only residential. Squatting in commercial properties is a civil matter, not a criminal offence and the police cannot force entry or evict you. For that matter, neither can the legal owners of the property, they have to go to a civil court to get you evicted and this takes time. If you are taken to court you do not have to attend and the court has to give you notice of the eviction date. It is a good idea to leave before the court bailiffs arrive to enforce your eviction. You even have the legal right to phone the court to ask for the eviction date. An Ordinary Court Possession Order takes time but if the owners have applied for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) and succeeded, you will have 24 hours (from when the court order is served) to move out, or you could be arrested. The above information on squatting was taken from the Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS), Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St, London, E1 7QX. They are open Monday to Friday 2-6pm. Tel: 0203 216 0099 Fax: 0203 216 0098. Email: advice@squatter.org.uk. Website: www.squatter.org.uk. If you need advice or run into legal trouble or are being harassed by the police or the rightful owners of a property you should call the ASS for help and advice immediately.

Sleeping indoors – hostels and shelters
Hostels should be regarded as a last resort. They are relatively expensive per night and rely on housing benefits.

There’s 18 people packed in one big room. It’s chaotic, and there’s a lot of drugs and alcohol going on, which I really want to keep away from. I never really felt comfortable there at all. Reported Paul, a homeless man in Bristol.

Some shelters will only take in people who are entitled to housing benefits and turn away homeless who aren't able to pay their quite high daily rate. In other local authorities shelters are having to close because councils claim that a shelter doesn't constitute a dwelling because the claimant has to leave in the morning, taking his or her belongings, and has no automatic right of return. How councils interpret the ruling on what constitutes a dwelling is a "local decision" but this is all about the local council saving money, not about helping the homeless. It can sometimes be difficult to get into an emergency hostel or night shelter. Some have waiting lists or some will only take people who have been sent there by advice agencies, the local council or outreach teams. A few hostels and night shelters will accept people at the door. These are sometimes called 'direct access' hostels but are often restricted to young people, people with health or addiction problems, people from a particular culture or people who have been sleeping rough for a long time.

The problems with homeless shelters and hostels is they were conceived for the wrong purpose. They try perhaps, to fulfil too many roles. The rise in numbers of people with serious mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse is a marker of the poverty and helplessness of our times. Wealthy people also have mental health issues, take drugs and drink to excess because of other ills in society but they are not as noticeable as the poor. Many hostels do not simply provide a roof for the night, they offer assistance to people with real issues. While there is obviously a need for this sort of care it is not certain that the homeless hostels and shelters are the right venue for this if it is done at the expense of those who merely want a safe night's sleep for little money. I am not seeking to offer answers to these questions, this article is advice for the homeless or those facing homelessness and I would like to warn people that they must take care and find out as much about a particular homeless shelter or hostel as they can before making use of it.

Volker Busch-Geertsema and Ingrid Sahlin, Department of Social Work, Göteborg University, Sweden looking at the role of hostels and temporary accommodation concluded:… an organized provision of mainstream housing, let with security of tenure and coupled with support when requested by the residents is the only working solution to homelessness and would also minimize the need for homeless hostels.

At best, hostels satisfy emergency needs for a bed, a roof and a place to stay and may be used by local councils as temporary accommodation while assessing a homeless claim. At worse, low quality hostels and night shelters make up an appalling alternative to other kinds of accommodation, and are used by local councils to serve a function as punishment and deterrence with view to coercing homeless people to try and remain in other types of housing, for example sofa surfing or staying with family to reduce the load on homeless options. Some councils see hostel living as preparation for future regular housing, especially for the young, however, learning how to survive in an institution does not facilitate independent living, conversely, it might entail opposite results: institutionalization, secondary adaptation and stigmatization.

Why do people end up in hostels and shelters?
According to "The hidden truth about homelessness" by The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Kesia Reeve, concluded:

Evidence emerged that single homeless people who may be entitled to accommodation are deterred from applying, many are misinformed about their entitlements, not all are given the opportunity to make a homelessness application, local authorities do not always fulfil their duty to 'advise and assist' homeless people, and that when advice or signposting is offered it is of little or no use.

Because single homeless people do not usually qualify for priority need when means tested by council homeless options teams they do not get the help they need and become a hidden homeless statistic. This means that homelessness in Britain is a much greater problem than Central and Local Government care to admit.

If you are offered housing
If you are offered housing by your local council, either in council managed accommodation (very rare) or in the private housing market, your problems are not over yet. If you are of pension age and have been offered priority housing the next problem in your personal struggle with homelessness is setting up your new home. Housing provided by both private landlords and housing associations are just empty shells in the UK. It is most often the case that the kitchen will have no white goods, there will be no floor covering or curtains. You will need to source everything you need from a cooker to a sweeping brush and setting up even a small home is expensive. If you are a pensioner and have been receiving pension credit guarantee payments you can apply for help in the form of loans and grants. All the charities that help homeless senior citizens, such as the Salvation Army, Age UK, etc., have this rule and if you do not receive pension credit guarantees they will not help you even if your need is greater than people receiving these means–benefit credits. Basically, if you do not qualify for pension credit no one will help you with funds for furniture and white goods.

This also means that there is very little help for younger people needing this sort of financial help. The local council housing options team are supposed to help you with advice and contacts but they most likely won't help you at all. Once you are off their homeless register they have no duty of care to you and although they should at least help with advice if nothing else, don't hold your breath. Prepare to sleep on bare floorboards, live on sandwiches and sacrifice your privacy. You will have to pay rent, council tax, water rates, meter charges and fuel charges in return for having a roof over your head. If you default on your payments and get thrown out of your home the local council probably won't help you a second time so you will end up sleeping rough again. Be warned that if you do not pay your council tax you could be sent to prison, so if you are struggling to pay the outgoings on your new home give council tax a priority over all else.

Case Study:
An elderly couple who applied to Hambleton District Council for homeless help ended up living in a remote village south of Middlesbrough that only had one bus route and a bus twice a day with no possibility of accessing a railway station and returning home the same day. This lack of transport meant they could not travel to Durham, Darlington, Leeds or Newcastle without an overnight stay, which was financially impossible for them. This made it impossible to attend meetings with the Dept. of Works and Pensions, a passport office, other government offices or obtain essential health care. The lack of public transport made it impossible to maintain contact with their social network in the Northallerton area and to make matters worse, the local bus service is likely to be axed, leaving them entirely isolated. To exacerbate the couple's misery living in the place, when they moved in it was completely empty, and they had to sleep on the floor and had no cooker, fridge or washing machine. They could not even afford a sweeping brush to sweep the floor. Travel to the shops for food necessitated a whole day's outing, access to food banks in the area wasn't possible. Every penny they had was needed to pay the outgoings of the one bedroom bungalow. How could the local council's homeless team allow this situation to happen? Here's how:

Hambleton DC housing options team leader decided the bungalow was "suitable" and issued a final part 6 offer notice to the couple under the current Homelessness Code of Guidance, which was introduced on 3 April 2018. The Code recommends that applicants are allowed a 'reasonable period' (the length depending on the circumstances of the applicant) to decide whether or not to accept. It goes on to say that applicants should be given the opportunity to view properties before being asked to accept, and where this is not possible being given information about the property including, for example, photographs and the opportunity to speak to the landlord or agent. Ideally, they should be given the opportunity to consider more than one property.

In the case of our couple they were not permitted to consider more than one property they were told if they did not accept the property on offer no further help would be given.

Under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 in assessing "suitability" the local authority must take into account:
  • The significance of any disruption to employment, caring responsibilities or education of the applicant and her/his household;

  • the proximity and accessibility of medical facilities and other support which are currently being provided and are essential to well-being;

  • proximity and accessibility of local services, amenities and transport.
At a meeting with the couple the housing options team said that they had decided the property was suitable despite protests that the bus service being the couple's only means of transport was so limited that current medical support could not be readily accessed and any chances of obtaining employment to subsidize the couple's income was impossible because of the remote location and lack of transport. It was impossible to get help from any food banks because of the timing of the buses. The housing options team didn't care.

Final say.
As is often the case with help by local authorities for the homeless, there is no consideration for the homeless person, everything is just a matter of strict interpretation of the Housing Act and there is no real caring, help or compassion. Local Government Officers just do not care about the people they are supposed to be helping, it is a cynical operation and this handling of the vulnerable is evidenced over and over again. The elderly couple mentioned above were housed by the council in a B&B before the move. The B&B was scheduled for demolition, had asbestos in the walls and ceilings, was in a bad state of repair and decoration and had no facilities for making food or storing it. A family housed in the same B&B were told by the council they had to move into a single bedroomed property, which had to suffice for two adults and two young children.

Homeless prevention in North Yorkshire, especially in Hambleton district, is especially badly run and operated. This is based on my personal experience of them. It would appear that many other councils are just as bad. The staff do not even pretend to care, they are rude, surly, disrespectful, offhand and uber-bureaucratic. The homeless prevention team is run by a team leader who would have been better employed in an 18th Century house of correction and her style of management influences those who work for her. Unfortunately, homeless prevention in North Yorkshire is apparently quite typical of the way other local authority housing options teams operate, as is evidenced in the many complaints received by homeless outreach organizations and organizations trying to help the homeless.

For all their faults and ills, the way local councils handle homeless help is only the sharp end of the problem, the responsibility for the nation's homeless and poor rests with Parliament. Having said that, it can no longer be an excuse that councils do not have council houses to rent out. The councils were all quick enough to sell them off under the Thatcher regime and they did nothing to even attempt to replace them with more modern social housing. Homelessness and poverty has always been a slight on society, it is not a new phenomenon. The truth is that homelessness and poverty are low priority for central government and for local government who are left dealing with the problem. Neither government institution tries to solve the problem of poverty and homelessness – instead, they merely stick a plaster on the wound hoping it will somehow go away. It is a complex social problem and the local government officers handling it are just not intelligent enough, qualified enough or even caring enough to get anywhere close to finding a long term solution. In fact, they do not see this as their remit, they merely apply the letter of the law being the Housing Act. The Housing Act is designed to control the homeless population, not to find a long term solution to the problem. Parliamentarians do not seem to be anymore caring or capable of solving this social problem than does their local government lackeys.

Homelessness and poverty, either singularly or in unison, can drive people into a state of despair. The so called mental health issues of the poor and homeless often go hand–in–hand with problems of depression, hopelessness, anger and despair. Nine times out of ten these factors are related to poverty and financial problems that seem, to the victim, to be insolvable. Having it rammed down their throats that bad decisions and mistakes may have led to financial difficulty doesn't help someone in financial difficulty pull out of the void and sort their lives out. People suffering from anxiety and depression do not respond well to negative criticism and more pressure. This is one of the reasons there is a high mortality rate among the homeless. People simply just give up on life, ergo death can seem a very attractive option when times are as bad as can be and everyone who is allegedly helping is being harsh and authoritarian. This applies to the law courts as well as the councils and institutions who are supposed to be helping the vulnerable.

These emotional lows experienced by the vulnerable are often coupled with alcohol and drug use as mechanisms to escape the fear and pain of the situation. Not everyone who experiences poverty and or homelessness turns to drink and drugs but the media would have us think otherwise. Marginalization, stigmatization and ignorance fuelled by TV documentaries that sensationalize poverty and homelessness have definitely been instrumental in turning public opinion away from sympathy for the under privileged to contempt for them. This contempt seems now to be entrenched in the psyche of the nation and also its political leaders. For example: Growing numbers of vulnerable homeless people are being fined, given criminal convictions and even imprisoned for begging and rough sleeping, the Guardian Newspaper revealed:

Despite updated Home Office guidance at the start of the year (2018), which instructed councils not to target people for being homeless and sleeping rough, the Guardian found over 50 local authorities with public space protection orders (PSPOs) in place meaning homeless people were being banned from town centres, routinely fined hundreds of pounds and sent to prison if caught repeatedly asking for money. Cases included a man jailed for four months for breaching a criminal behaviour order (CBO) in Gloucester for begging – about which the judge admitted "I will be sending a man to prison for asking for food when he was hungry" – and a man in Carlisle was fined £105 after a child dropped £2 in his sleeping bag.

The Homelessness Reduction Act, introduced in 2018 and described at the time by ministers as the "most ambitious legislation in decades", places a duty on councils to support anyone who is homeless, or who is at risk of becoming homeless, within 56 days. This led to more people being placed in temporary and emergency accommodation as a result of the act. B&B owners do not want the responsibility of taking homeless cases in leaving councils struggling to accommodate them amid a lack of affordable housing. Charities and politicians warned last year that as well as failing to provide councils with enough money to deliver on their new obligations, the act failed to address the root causes and was in some cases leaving vulnerable people without help. So, the government is passing the problem on to councils, many of which are gatekeeping, trying to prevent people going through the system, because the councils can't pay for temporary accommodation and over the past decades they did not lobby Parliament for funds and invested in social housing stock because they had the attitude they were well rid of the problem of managing council housing.

Clearly, solving homelessness is ultimately the responsibility of central government. The government must increase the supply of social housing and at the same time improve the welfare system so it covers the real cost of renting. There needs to be a redistribution of housing stock with ownership of second and third homes being banned and for government to take over and control housing stock owned by landlords profiteering under the ridiculous buy–to–let mortgage schemes. The government needs to appropriate all empty residential dwellings bought for investment, often by speculative foreign buyers. In short, the housing situation in Britain is a national disgrace, the way central and local government handles poverty and homelessness is a national scandal and the treatment of the poor and homeless by the great British public is a severe indictment of the depths of hedonism, cynicism and lack of caring to which the nation has sunk.