← Back to News
Orwell Prize

Homelessness in my Lifetime

Anne-Marie Harrison

In her entry for the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness, Anne-Marie Harrison reflects on her experience of working in the homelessness sector for 50 years, including changes in attitudes.

The year was 1971 and I had just left school. I was standing on the steps of the Ann Fowler Salvation Army hostel in Liverpool watching the sun go down over the city and the river Mersey. I was entering a new world. My dad said, ‘Why do you always have to ally yourself with the lowest form of life?’ But I don’t think I did. I am fortunate to have met so many varied, interesting and brave people from all over the world. 

The hostel, like all the Sally Army centres, was very well organised and on a shoestring. The three staff there seemed to lead peaceful and happy lives enjoying tea with their friends and listening to records. The centre community comprising fifty homeless women hummed around them. Most had a job to do and all looked after each other. The women came with stories of marital break-up, domestic abuse, mental illness, being unwanted at home or extreme poverty. There was a fifteen year old girl whose parents could not contemplate the shame of finding out she was pregnant. She told me she loved it there. Nobody looking down at her or bossing her about. I hope she got to keep her baby. I don’t remember any rehabilitation taking place. I think the women got used to hostel life and became like sisters to each other. Maybe I am glamourising it, but it was a good memory. A good memory because of the care and joy in that place for people who had not had a lot of it before. About once a week I would be woken up by someone shouting outside ‘Let me in’. The rejoinder would come from an open window in an upstairs bedroom, ‘No – you’re drunk’. After sitting on the doorstep all night the person was unlikely to do it again. I don’t remember anyone saying it was unfair. 

I went on to work in a hostel for young men who had come out of borstals and were homeless. We had almost a full house on Christmas Day. Only one man had been invited to visit his family, or anyone else for that matter. You could understand why most took street drugs and one killed himself on a terrible night. The man who killed himself was the one who had visited his family. I wonder what happened there. I was younger than some of the residents and they certainly told me a whole lot of things I knew nothing about. Despite being from the same area we had lived in parallel worlds. We had fun too. I remember being picked up and thrown into the lido at Kennington by a laughing group. The man who killed himself was a lifeguard there and we went quite often. He was the first person I knew who died in this way but certainly not the last. 

I trained as a social worker. By this time it was the 80s. Homelessness was taken seriously in those days. I spent many a Friday night along with a single person carrying a suitcase and calling the Shelter Night Line. The Shelter Nightline was great. They always found a place, even if it was on the other side of London. The next day the person would call from the hostel and say thank-you and you knew they were on their way to a new life. If the person was sick and couldn’t travel across London the managers would put them up in the local YMCA. It was unthinkable that anybody would be put back on the street. It was so rewarding. Not like now. 

I remember Louise Casey coming along as the Homelessness Czar and saying that hostels were bad and people needed their own homes. Uh-oh. This coincided with the Tory practice of selling off social housing so the homes were not actually there. A Salvation Army Officer told me that his hostel had closed down because the councils were insisting that each resident had a single room with an en-suite bathroom. You would have to do an awful lot of collecting in pubs to raise money for that. I have never had an en-suite bathroom, even now, and have never been harmed by sharing. The hostels closed down and the available housing was far less. People appeared sleeping in the streets as they had nowhere to go. The numbers increased and I found myself advising people to choose a doorway and sleep there for three consecutive nights while I phoned Streetlink. Unsurprisingly they thought I was mad. 

It was 2013 and I retired. As I like travelling and meeting people from around the world I decided to volunteer for the Refugee Council in Brixton where they had just opened a Destitution Centre. Despite my long experience I was a bit hazy about this term. It gets worse. This was for people from across the world who had fled war zones and torture to find safety in the UK. The people who came to this centre had mostly walked around all night or slept rough in parks wearing no warm clothes and with no money for food. Some had been beaten up and robbed of the little they had. Our job was to throw a lifeline, feed and comfort and get people into the few houses and hostels available in this situation. I was amazed by the sheer pluck, the good humour and the endless politeness and appreciation we encountered. Had I missed something? How can a country like ours allow people to be in this situation? It seems it can. And people get disbelieved and blamed for their own misfortunes. 

A young girl came one day, bearing a huge suitcase, crying. She had been sleeping in a park and she was cold and scared. It was just before Christmas and the manager allowed me to take her home with me. She enjoyed our household and stayed for two years. Now she has a husband, child and home of her own in the next road to us. This started me hosting and I have been fortunate to share my life with people from all over the world with many different stories. 

I went on to do casework for another local refugee organisation. During the Covid lockdowns it changed its brief from that of helping refugees acclimatise and settle in the UK to working with destitute people only. The former became a luxury and the latter a necessity. Even now Covid is history, it hasn't changed and the issue gets more and more severe. It is preferable to start working with a destitute person early because, as time goes on, the person is  very likely to develop mental health problems and everything will be much harder. How many bright, promising young men and women become more and more disheartened and alienated and are suffering in a way that a doctor can’t fix but a warm home can? 

I spoke with a street outreach worker who was at the point of quitting. He had diligently met and assessed so many homeless people but all he could give them was his business card as there were hardly any homes to take them to. The street homeless people I have spoken to in my area usually have a chain number and a business card but of course no home. 

I volunteer at our local church's winter night shelter. Every morning our guests get up, pack, spend the day outside and then find their way to a different church for the next night. They are sleeping on camp beds. Some come late straight from work, several struggle with their English. One of the charity’s trustees came to dinner last week and I asked the obvious question ‘Why don’t the guests sleep in one church all the time and the volunteers travel?’ The trustee replied that they have suggested this many times but the churches won’t have it. They have a meeting at least one night every week. I wonder what Jesus would say to that. As a Christian, I feel ashamed. 

I have written about rough sleeping and destitution because it is very visible and shocking and especially unacceptable. But there are myriad hidden homeless people. I have met many young men sleeping on the floor of their friends’ flats and houses because they cannot find a place of their own, women living with men who are violent to them because their immigration status precludes access to a refuge, people sleeping in mosques and churches, big families all in one room, people being given tents upon release from prison and many children in temporary accommodation sleeping on the bus on their way to school because it is so far away. 

The United Kingdom, London in particular and my borough of Lambeth especially, has the biggest gap between rich and poor since the middle ages. You only have to look at big houses, cars and restaurants alongside people sleeping in doorways to see this. I am so tired of hearing ‘It will take a long time to solve homelessness’ and ‘Many of these people have very complex problems and we don’t have the staff’. It is nonsense. Billions of pounds have been allocated to ending homelessness and there is almost nothing to show for it. 

A report published by Shelter on 29-2-2024 said: 

Government data published today reveals that 3,898 people are sleeping rough in England. The number of people rough sleeping has increased by more than a quarter for two years in a row. 

This means the current government has failed to meet its 2019 manifesto commitment to end street homelessness by 2024, and the next government is set to inherit a deepening housing emergency. 

In 2023, 3,898 people were estimated to be sleeping rough in England: a 27% annual increase despite the government making an election promise in 2019 to end rough sleeping by 2024. 

This is likely to be an underestimate. For example, women are not properly represented in statistics. 

And with regard to statutory homelessness including children it says: 

Further government data released today shows a new record high in both the number of households and the number of children who are homeless in temporary accommodation provided by local councils. 

109,000 households are homeless in temporary accommodation – up 10% in a year 

142,490 children are homeless – up 16,960 (14%) in a year 

It doesn’t even try to estimate the insecurely housed; the many people at risk of violence, cold and hunger who could and do find themselves on the street suddenly and with no notice and live in constant fear of this. 

We need a raft of measures to end homelessness now. We need to build more social housing, buy up private houses for councils to let out, bring back the Fair Rent Officer, strengthen the private rented sector, bring back staffed hostels and cold weather shelters, fix up and let out void council properties and make it against the law to own a property that is unoccupied. We need a plan for people in between immigration applications and new refugees. We need to treat each homeless person as a person in crisis and a top priority and respond accordingly. We can if we want to. This is irrespective of any contributing issues such as addiction or immigration status. Everybody needs somewhere to live and marginalising and dehumanising people without homes makes everybody poorer. We are missing out on so many contributions to our society and so much talent. This could be your child or it could be you. Perhaps it is. 

← Back to News