Homelessness: not even a mile in someone’s shoes

5th August 2021

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On Monday 5 July I was very excited to be getting out and doing proper face to face user research in communities. The research was in Kings Lynn, Norfolk and it started at 08:30am. There had been terrible thunderstorms for the past week and I had a three hour drive to get there so I thought I would leave in plenty of time (03:30am) just in case.

Turns out I got there at 06:20am and had two hours before meeting a homeless day centre called Purfleet (who are absolutely amazing by the way.)


So I had a couple of hours and I started thinking… what is it like for those who are sleeping rough right now, this early in the morning?

Is it possible to even contemplate what it’s like in someone’s shoes?

I left my bank card in the car and decided I could only use my phone to make notes (not to look things up or pass time etc.) 

Here’s some of the things I thought about and felt for that couple of hours.


Where do you go the loo if you are homeless

I needed the toilet about 15 minutes into it (I had been driving for three hours previously). And suddenly realised I can’t jump into a coffee shop, they weren’t open - nor would I be able to buy a coffee and use the customer toilets. I found some public toilets but they were closed. We don’t have to talk about how this situation was resolved.

Pete Blog 2

Raining

It started raining. Just a shower and I had a mac on. But being damp when it had stopped wasn’t comfortable. For those on the streets, had they slept out in those awful thunderstorms last night? Was their stuff all wet? And where do they put their sleeping bags (if they have one) all day?

Are those seagulls this noisy all the time?

Cashless

If less and less people carry cash then does that mean less and less people give coins to people sleeping rough?

Asking for money

I find it a little awkward asking strangers for directions. I always make an excuse as to why I need the directions and I make sure it’s someone else's fault and not mine. I started to think about the few people who were now on their way to work and strolling down the street. Imagine having to ask them for money. That first time must be such a blow to your pride. I was wondering if it got easier to ask… and then that seemed even worse somehow.

Stopping and sitting

I’d been walking for over an hour and started thinking about where to rest. (If I’m being completely honest it was warm and I started to become self conscious about sweating). I found it very difficult to just stop in a street and lean against a wall. I felt like the council workers who were watering the flower beds were looking at me suspiciously when I did it, like ‘why would someone have nowhere to be at 07:00am’. (They probably weren’t but I moved on anyway). Then I found the river and sat on a low wall. I thought ‘here I can just think about things and watch the world go by’. I thought I’d done this for about 30 minutes - it was 8 minutes in total and I was done.

Pete Blog 3

I noticed it was time to head to the homeless centre I was here to meet. I remembered my Dad once getting very angry when, a few years ago, Iain Duncan Smith had said he could live off Jobseekers Allowance for a week. My Dad shouted at the tv ‘Anyone can survive a week when they know they have a mansion and loads of money to go back to. But try it with no end in sight!’ 

I’m embarrassed that maybe that’s all I was doing. Pretending I could, for a moment, understand what it was like when I absolutely can’t.

Paula (one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met) is the CEO at Purfleet - the homeless centre. I told her about my morning and she said ‘it’s almost impossible to access things when your life is complex and the basics [like where to go the loo] aren’t even covered’

Then… Paula told me two stories that have stayed with me…. I won’t do them justice here but I’ll try. 

Cancer

A lady, a little while ago, was living in a tent in the woods outside Kings Lynn. She had no recourse to public funds. A process that I don’t have much of an understanding of to be honest. Anyway, we (the system) knew this lady was living in the woods in a tent. We (the system) knew that she had cancer. And we (the system) left her there to die!

She didn’t get treatment, didn’t get a home, didn’t get any help (except for Paula and her team fighting for her and doing all that they could).

Looking homeless

I also heard about a gentleman who had a meeting with the council so he could access some support. He was very self conscious about his appearance because he had been sleeping rough for a while. Paula and the team got him some new clothes, the hairdresser across the road cut his hair and he walked out of the centre feeling a sense of worth that he hadn’t for a while. When he got to the council he was met with this sentence

“Well you don’t look or smell homeless” so didn’t get support.

I don’t have any upside right now.

Side note: Imagine if, instead of travelling to space, three of the wealthiest people to have ever lived decided to compete with each other to end homelessness. Or cure cancer, or feed the hungry or combat climate change etc. 

I’m tired.

I’m ashamed.