Sheffield | October 2016:
Outside hundreds of empty boarded up flats at Park Hill live a small community of people without anywhere to call home. They currently live in tents and on the open balconies of the English Heritage Grade II listed building.
The people who make up the small community now living there didn’t know one another before coming together to share resources and to support each other. The tents have been donated by a kind gentleman, who they all speak highly of. The same gentleman is also trying to connect them with services and people who might help to improve their situation. It was heartening to hear they have an ally who is prepared to work hard on their behalf and support them in practical ways.
The original council tenants, of the yet to be re-developed part of the estate, have all been relocated. Many of the empty flats have been unused now for years.
Media and politicians paint an unfinished and distorted picture of social problems in this country. It might be easy for outsiders to look on and judge the people whose only option is to live rough. We don’t get to read about the real reasons people end up without a home or how the benefits system or health care system has failed them.
The photograph above is shocking enough but it cannot show the stories and lives of the people who make up this small community. Individually they have all arrived at Park Hill for reasons which the media do not encourage us to consider.
We all have our own stories about how we have arrived at this moment. At any point and at any time our lives might take an unexpected turn for the worse. It could be as a result of a mistake we have made or a bad decision or it might be that circumstances outside of our control have prevailed. If we are fortunate enough to be in good health and if we have the support of friends and family we may steady our course and recover from the setback. When circumstances conspire to impact significantly on our lives it is often the most vulnerable in society who have the greatest difficulty in navigating their way out of trouble. They may lack proper, meaningful, informed support of friends, family, community and statutory services. Without such support it is easy for people to be set adrift.
There are times when through circumstances beyond our control many of us have been forced to take an unforeseen turn, down a road we had no desire or wish to go down. For those without security and support events can take over. Sadly our society no longer has the safety nets which once existed to help people through difficult times. Only this week in Parliament Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of under-funded mental health services. Many of us know someone whose needs have not been met by an overstretched underfunded NHS.
The Government have created a benefits system which has had much media coverage about its shortcomings. About how the most vulnerable in society are no longer being helped. Applications for Employment Support Allowance are complicated and there has been a lot in the press about the fitness for work medical assessments. The outcome of which can have leave people in desperate and confusing situations. The process for appeal is confusing and can result with people back at work in poor health because they have no other option. Working when ill is not sustainable and may exacerbate someones condition throwing them back into a system that doesn’t work. We have all read the stories about people lying in hospital beds awaiting operations who have been declared fit for work. They are not even in a position to challenge or appeal decisions because they are ill in hospital! I won’t try to illustrate the magnitude of the failings of the benefit system. The internet is full of first hand accounts about a system that is by design failing the people it is meant to help.
This weekend a new film by Ken Loach has opened in cinemas across the UK. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a timely film about how easily people can become victims of the benefits system. If you have no idea quite how broken the system is then the film offers an insight. The people whose stories the film follows are good people with kind hearts. The film has some wonderful moments of friendship, caring and compassion. I have watched the film. It is powerful and memorable. I would encourage everyone to find time for I, Daniel Bake.
I was at Park Hill yesterday not because I knew people were sleeping rough but to take some photographs of the empty estate. Those who follow this site will have seen many images over the years that have been taken at Park Hill. It was by chance that I met five of the people who are currently living in tents and on balconies. The people I spoke to were friendly and upon talking to them I was made very welcome.
One chap who introduced himself but who I will call ‘S’ offered to show me around. I said that I didn’t wish to intrude but he insisted. The camp was very tidy and organised. S pointed out a security camera which is now pointing directly at the camp for the purpose of their own security. They have had some trouble, from people who didn’t take time to get to know them and for their own protection requested the camera be turned to face where they live. S showed me inside one of the big tents where he sleeps. In another location he also showed me the communal cooking and eating area where the residents can all get together and share what food they have, most of which has been donated by well wishers.
In my original draft for this blog post I detailed the reasons why and how some of the individual residents now living in this small community had found themselves in such difficult times. Their stories are powerful and personal. I have since removed them from this final version. Without their permission it seemed invasive to write about the things they had shared. I hope that what I have written here respects their privacy while drawing attention to what is happening in the city. Suffice to say I was moved by their individual stories and angered not by them but by the systems and bureaucracy that have left them in their situation.
Some of the people with whom I chatted had lived in secure tenancies. Changes in housing legislation meant they could no longer afford to remain. Finding affordable private rented accommodation can be difficult for people claiming benefits. Many of the people now living at Park Hill have lost the safety of their homes and the communities in which they lived. They are isolated from friends, family and the security of things familiar. Having no fixed address presents all sorts of difficulties when trying to seek work or even register for benefits and health care. Ongoing health problems may be harder to manage when they are living in stressful and uncertain conditions. Sleeping rough in itself can add to their physical and mental health problems. One person was keen to share with me that the only drugs they had ever taken were prescribed by a GP for their mental wellbeing.
I chatted to S for some time and he said he was happy for me to take his photograph and for me to put it on this blog entry. I declined to take him up on his offer and explained to him my reasons for not wanting to do so.
I was deeply moved by the moments the residents shared with me. I had not enquired about their circumstances because I saw it as none of my business. I was humbled by their honesty and openness. I also had conversations with them about services and people who may be able to offer some help. They knew all too well, as do I, that accessing support is far from straight forward. There is no quick fix to get their lives back on track.
There are agencies in Sheffield who do great work in helping and supporting vulnerable homeless people. However the reality is that the level of support needed by some is high and services are stretched thin. If the level of support and accommodation available was sufficient then the number of people sleeping rough would be a lot less. The numbers of people sleeping rough in Sheffield has risen dramatically over the last couple of years. The services available to them have not.
Sadly in 2016 there are still people who will, for reasons unknown, abuse people less fortunate than themselves. To them the people at Park Hill might simply be seen as ‘homeless’, ‘druggies’, ‘wasters’ or ‘scroungers’. During the time I was there I heard that the residents have suffered all these terms of abuse. Terms which allow people to project their own version of events onto those about whose lives they have no knowledge. The people living in this community live in tough enough conditions without anyone adding to their problems.
The term ‘homeless’ isn’t necessarily a one of abuse but it has become one of convenience. One which has lost its meaning. It does little to encourage us to think of people as individuals or the reality of their situation. It no longer invokes a sense of compassion or caring. The word tramp is rarely used to describe someone who is without a home, instead we call them a ‘homeless person’ or ‘homeless people’. It is a term which almost covers them and their problems in a cloak of invisibility. As if becoming homeless creates a new species of human being. That they and the problems they face can all be neatly bundled up into such an unforgiving turn of phrase.
I’m not sure I or anyone would want their life boxed away so conveniently by someone using just one word or phrase. Just because someone is without a home or sleeping rough doesn’t suddenly make them a certain type of person. Their change of circumstance doesn’t mean that they have suddenly lost their history, education, family, skills, ambition, desires, passion, dignity or feelings. Some might think language isn’t important in these issues. It is. If we apply some of the terms used to describe someone sleeping rough to our own lives or to our friends or family I think we might all start to feel some of their discomfort? I’m not suggesting in this blog post I understand all the issues. I am aware that in the media the language used around social problems often does little to encourage our thinking about individuals, their lives and the reality of the problems they face.
Yesterday it was a pleasure to meet some of the small community of people who care a great deal about each other and about what their futures hold. Living on the fringes of our society where they struggle to access support, health care, benefits and secure housing was never a lifestyle choice for them. It is clear to me that the choices they have at present are very narrow. The prospect of spending the winter in a tent on a hill is something no one should have to face. All the time I was there I struggled to make sense of the fact that they are living in the shadow of empty housing!
How can it be acceptable, that in 2016 people are sleeping rough, outside in the cold on the balconies of empty housing? We are heading into the coldest months of winter and I cannot begin to imagine how anyone can cope living in such conditions.
One question which came to me as I talked with the people who make up this small community and one which needs to be asked is, what is the possibility of opening a few flats to be used as a winter shelter? Maybe short term? Enough to see a few people through the winter. Somewhere that might provide them with an address to help them access other services and maybe even find work.
Sheffield City Council are aware of the rising levels of people sleeping rough across the city. Yet it appears no one has the imagination to deal with the situation in a way that doesn’t involve thousands of miles of red tape and layers of bureaucracy. Often in situations like this the first response from a council tends to be negative. They are quick to draw up a long list of a thousand reasons why something can’t be done.
In a progressive council the starting point could be ‘This is a great idea. Here is a long list of reasons why and how this idea might help deal with a growing problem. Lets make it happen…!’
We all know there is no magic wand to make things right. We do however have the power to apply positive thinking to the problems faced by people sleeping rough. For councils and politicians, engaging positively with these issues needs to be the starting point.
The problems now faced by people without housing are getting worse not better. In Sheffield the council could decide to open some of the flats as a night shelter. It might be that the flats now belong to Urban Splash (the company responsible for redevelopment). If that is the case I’m sure some positive negotiations could make it happen.
If a couple of professional footballer players, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville can open a night shelter then I’m sure Sheffield City Council can follow their lead…! I don’t think Ryan and Gary stopped to make a long list of reasons why they couldn’t do something. They saw a need and realised they could make a difference….