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October 31, 2023

Orwell Prize: I see you

Last year we partnered with the Orwell Foundation to offer the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness. With the inaugural prize being awarded back in June to Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Lavelle, both of whom wrote about their own experiences of homelessness, we are pleased to share a selection of entries by people with personal experience of homelessness or about personal stories of homelessness over the coming weeks. 

Trigger warning: This article makes references to drugs, prostitution and sexual violence

I see you

By Beth Abbott

I lived in their hostels when I was 16 and then 18, I got my first home after that process. The first time I went in I fell in love with the boy from the hostel down the road. 

I say boy; he was 21 and I was 16. I think it was his fake Lacoste tracksuit that pulled me in his direction and the lovely aroma of stale weed. This may amaze you now so hold on to your seats but that never actually worked out (I know, right?) and on the outside, we looked like a scene from  Romeo and Juliet. 

Anyhow, I came back through the hostel system at 18. I did a few soul-destroying telesales jobs here and there, but my main passion was being a support worker and helping other people to find  homes for themself. 

I got to see both sides of the fence. When you live in a hostel you are stuck in a catch-22 situation. The rent is much higher in hostels because you have a key worker there. You have far less money than if you had your own home or tenancy. You must share facilities with people you may not like, and it feels a little bit like being in prison. If you went to work, you wouldn’t be able to afford the rent, so you are locked in a cycle of signing on and mixing with other residents who are not working. 

Now the organisation I went through was up to a good level of standard but some of the homes or hostels are not fit for purpose. If you didn’t go in with an alcohol or drug addiction the likelihood is that you would be leaving with one. 

If you think of homelessness as a revolving door, each time someone comes back through the system, they get lowered down the ladder. I have worked in the hostels run by organisations that everyone has heard of, but then I’ve been a floating support worker for an agency where I wouldn’t let my dog stay let alone another human being. 

I worked in one hostel when I was 23, I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and it was located at a place in Birmingham which I had always thought of as posh. After working there, I soon realised it was not. Where I used to go out on a night out there was, but  just a stone's throw down the road it was rife with prostitution, heroin, and homelessness. 

I wrote this poem about one of the girls who lived in one of the hostels:

Her crooked teeth are black 
Can’t be scrubbed off though, they are stained from the crack She wonders off falling into the night 
She might be a crack head, but she is quite polite 
Appears around two or Three 
Bloodshot eyes and blood around her knee 
A mumbling slurring young wreck 
With love bites covering her bony neck  
Wonder which punter did that? 
How desperate she will have to be to go back? 
Her top is torn must have got ripped 
Her second-hand jeans still unzipped 
Her boyfriend if that is what I must call him looks glad Ignoring the experience that his girl just had  
Holds his hand out expecting to see bags  
His fingers turned yellow from all the cheap fags 
She is unaffected or seems to be unaware 
That she abuses her body without a care 
In some kind of trap 
She has been there to long there no going back 
Her eyes are empty they do not show her soul 
She relies on punters and her Tuesday dole 
Scraping through life each day she must score  
Wrecking her body longing for nothing more 
When she sees herself in in the mirror  
She is turning transparent getting thinner and thinner If she would listen, I would help 
She would rob my purse I have no doubt 
I would not judge her that is her addiction  
She is not in court that is not her conviction 
However, it would hurt, it would doubt my trust  
She would look me in the eye though, and know I have her sussed I know though it is just a means to an end  
She sees my purse not a friend  
Anything to catch that high, another tale, another lie  Anything for that end goal 
That leaves her empty takes her soul

I used to have to do the late shift there. I will be honest I had always thought I was quite streetwise, I used to drink over the park with friends in freezing conditions and get into scraps here and there, but if I am truthful, I was scared working at this hostel. I had to patrol the building every hour to make sure there was nothing untoward going on. 

Walking up and down the landings there were three floors. Just me against potentially 50 women. These women were women that had done time in prison like it was a walk in the park. 

They prostituted themselves to get their fix, they begged, borrowed, and stole. I remember getting ready to go to work once and someone said to me ‘why do you go and work there, why do you even bother to try to help them’ 

I just looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘ I used to live in a hostel’ and made my way into work. I have never really liked her anyway, always looking down on other people. She is not Mother Teresa. To be fair I do not think Mother Terresa would judge that much anyhow.  

What people do not realise when they see these women prostituting themselves and taking heroin daily, is that this lifestyle they are living came from childhood trauma.  

I got to see that though as a key worker. One of the ladies I worked with was pregnant, and that child would get taken from her the moment it was born in the hospital. When she was a young child, she was abused.  As a woman now she is addicted to a substance that eats at her from the inside out. She prostitutes her body to get a fix and will be in and out of this hostel system unless she is given a stint in rehab, counselling for her childhood trauma, and a ton of money piled into her recovery, the rest of her life. 

She will never get to love her own children because the very people who should have protected and loved her let her down. 

So, while she gets arrested for prostituting HER body, to feed the fix that was imposed upon her uninvited as a child, she is the one that gets labelled.  

She gets arrested while the beasts who pay for her services go back to their vanilla marriages at the  end of the day.

They walk around with no bell around their neck. 
Warm me up for I am cold 
I started shaking when my soul got sold 
Wrap me in a blanket hide me from this world 
For although I have a womans body  
I am just a little girl 
Hold out your arms and place my heart within your hand 
For, you are the one my soul got sold to, so only you can understand 

During my time working at that hostel THREE women died. I was there FOUR months. One died rom sniffing lighter fluid. The other was so intoxicated she fell down the stairs and landed badly.  One died of a heroin overdose. 

I used to get some money out of the kitty on Friday nights and do a little spread for the women. I  knew they would not be spending their money on food. We had a couple of karaoke nights, and it was  wholesome fun. I saw them as humans with thoughts and feelings. They saw that I did so they let their barriers down. 

I left that job though because I worried for the safety of my unborn child, not the safety from the  actions of the women, but I had to get the bus back late at night. I feared the men that patrolled the area looking for desperate women selling their souls. If I am honest with myself the likelihood of any of them recovering is slim. I would imagine there have been many more deaths in that hostel, and I would imagine they were put down as cycle statistics.

Later I worked at a drop-in centre for people affected by homelessness and, particularly, rough sleeping where  they served food and people could shower,  wash their clothes, get spare clothes, or speak with a nurse or get a place to stay for the night. 

I could not understand why some of these people that attended here actively choose to sleep on the streets instead of in the hostels we could provide them with. Remember the part though when I said each person who goes through the revolving door, each time the places get worse? 

Well, some of these people had burnt bridges in some of the hostels, so the ones they got offered were more like squats. Unregulated providers started setting up and charging a lot in housing benefits because they would say there were housing support key workers, but these were non-existent and they were unregulated. This would mean for a box room they were charging housing benefits £300 in rent a week sometimes. These kinds of homes would be filled with drug users, immigrants, and the people that walked through the door at  4.30pm on a Friday saying they were homeless. 

The feedback we would get from these people sleeping rough was that it was surprisingly safer on the streets than in those places and that there was a sense of community there. I got a bit  annoyed once. I was doing a risk and needs assessment with one person, and every 10 minutes he would stop the meeting so he could go outside and drink his cider, this was because it was not allowed on the premises. 

I  loved working there. Once we got a call from a Birmingham hospital saying they were discharging a woman and she had no place to live so they discharged her to us. 

They discharged her in her dressing gown! To go and sit in a male-dominated place where people had addictions including sex addictions.  

Where was the compassion? We would get women fleeing domestic violence relationships who went around in a circle repeatedly like the cycle in homelessness?  

I would think, just leave him he doesn’t love you the answer is pretty simple just take your kids and  set up a new life. 

What people do not seem to realise is all these things go in hand. Unresolved childhood trauma.  Addiction. Domestic violence.  Mental Illness. They can all lead to homelessness.If there is co-dependency and addiction that ends up with domestic violence you’re going to end back at the drawing  board again. 

While we only deal with homelessness, we are setting the people up to fail. Ask ourselves why are they homeless? If it's domestic abuse, do they need counselling? Shall we refer to other organisations? ould workshops to boost self-esteem help? Was it sexual abuse? Is it an addiction? Do they know of the recovering community?  

People are too busy to see individuals and not statistics. But actually, by looking deeper into the core of the problem you stop the revolving door from endlessly turning. Sometimes all it takes is one good key worker, one social worker with a heart, and not just a textbook, one person to say ‘I SEE YOU’. 

How  crazy though, that’s like Russian roulette on a person’s life. I think it would be great if we did like a celebrity jungle-style hostel experiment called ‘I’ m A  Politician … Get Me Out Of Here’, whereby we put the people who set the budgets into some shared houses  and some hostels for 30 days and gave them only universal credit to live on and see how they got on. If they don’t emerge completely broken, they get to keep their seat. Pretty fair I’d say. They get to go in without that weight around their ankle of childhood trauma, labels, stereotypes, and lack of hope, so they are already leaps ahead. 

There are some fantastic organisations out there, though, and that should be acknowledged. They do help people, they do turn them into people not just statistics and they shouldn’t be tarnished with that brush of ‘hostels are awful’, and so on. 

I have a beautiful home now in a beautiful part of the world that is provided for me. This is my little part of Heaven. Some may think it is just a council house but to me, it is a world away from where I was, where I was heading to, and how my life would have been if I hadn’t broken the  cycle.  

This is not bricks and mortar. These walls are for making beautiful, sober, happy memories. I have been on both sides of the fence and for things to move forward there must be change. If you are reading this though and you are in a cycle and you cannot see a way out: you can, I did, and all the odds were stacked against me. 

Use that to fuel your fire instead of letting the ashes crush your spirit. I am going to work hard and I am going to buy this home one day.  

This home will be my daughter's legacy and when people who think it was just handed to me on a plate read my story, they will realise I survived things they never could to get to this point. And if it wasn’t for housing providers who are there at the end of this cycle, for the people who survive the homeless Hunger Games, then there wouldn’t be hope.

So, before people are quick to judge, live a day in someone else’s shoes before you stamp over their dreams with yours. Eat dried milk noodles and bread from your silver spoons and see how those taste. If you cannot find compassion for the man that sleeps in doorways or the woman that sells her soul then at least just say nothing at all.  

These people are not social projects for you to throw a pound to so you can upload your bio on social media to say you do charity work. They could have been so many other things and they may well someday be free. Until that day though, ‘I SEE YOU’.

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