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Orwell Prize

What does being homeless really look like today?

Owen Larkowsky

In this entry for the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness, Owen Larkowsky writes about his experiences being homeless and what needs to change

Shocking - Scary - Unacceptable.

I personally have had first hand experience of being homeless. The permanent anxiety/fear that it bestows upon you. Constantly having to find new places to bed down for the night, repeatedly being moved on by shop owners/police, or generally being victimised/mocked by people with nothing better to do with their time than to prey on the weak, the vulnerable. Gangs praying on the homeless society, street dealers pushing crack heroin in front of you along with other drugs, offering you drugs/cash/clothes the occasional roof over your head if you work for them! The easy temptation and how easy it is to give in to temptation. Forced to walk the city during the colder nights in order to keep warm, watching passer-bys as they move through the city at night, going about their lives, watching as if in a trance. 

The constant feeling of being lost, forgotten by society. Depression sets in, turning to alcohol to mask problems, a quick solution, blots out the cold too! The constant feeling that people are staring at me, due to the constant feeling of being dirty. No money to rent privately, and crying out to the council to help me to be told I'm not a priority. Months of asking the council to help to eventually stop asking them altogether, months on the street, the street slowly becomes the norm. The constant feeling of being outcasted, watching helplessly as other homeless people slowly begin to "fade away", watching as they run about the city "chasing their fix" or stealing to order in order to get cash to survive. Gangs repeatedly praying on the homeless day and night. Having to wash in public loos, shopping mall toilets in front of the public as they come and go during the day in order to stay clean. The embarrassment. At times being laughed at/mocked by people. The further sinking into depression, a feeling of a constant downward spiral, no structure to my day. Clothes stinking!

Watching as so many homeless people turn to drink and drugs. Seeing homeless females getting into strangers' cars, selling themselves in order to fund their drink/drug habit or to survive. Then turning to drink and drugs myself after months on the street, giving up. Hard to break out this cycle, leads to a life of crime then to jail. No real provision put in place for prisoners leaving prison, despite government stating help and support available.

If you have no accommodation upon release, some prisons do offer a sleeping bag! If you go to a bail hostel upon leaving prison as per some prisoner license terms, the bail hostel normally only keeps you for between two weeks and three months then you are homeless on the street. The cycle then repeats itself if you cannot break it, especially if you have no friends/support network.

What needs to change

  • More support given to prisoners coming up to release (as two weeks is not sufficient for agencies in prison to be able to find you accommodation upon release. Normally ends up with prisoners released homeless) can only engage with agencies that are supposed to be there to assist you with finding accommodation/bank account within the last three weeks of your sentence. This needs to change, more time needs to be allocated in a structural way.
  • Bail hostels, I feel, need to work more closely with housing providers to ensure that prison leavers have access to accommodation before leaving bail hostels so as not to end up homeless on street, which in turn could affect crime reoffending rates (bear in mind the majority of homeless are ex-prisoners).
  • Bail hostels should take some of this responsibility especially as they (bail hostel staff) work for prison and probation service.
  • To ensure that all females are given "priority status" in obtaining accommodation when leaving prison/bail hostel so that they are not left vulnerable on the streets, or left feeling they have to resort to selling themselves or turning to crime to survive or falling victim to gangs that take advantage of them.
  • Drugs are a major factor in keeping people on the streets, especially if you have been homeless a long time.
  • Possible random drug testing scheme rolled out in conjunction with police to ensure that homeless are not resorting to drugs (preventative measure) and to ensure that they access the help and support needed, as drugs is a major issue amongst homeless people in the community, majority of people on street develop a drink/drug habit.
  • Possible mandatory drug testing for all people released from prison as homeless? Or for all homeless people registered?
  • More workshops in prison to do with being homeless, and how to access help + support. Perhaps even a homeless course for prisoners (mandatory before release).

I feel that councils should work harder to ensure that homeless people are given the help and support in finding accommodation. That the council has a duty of care to ensure that everyone in their area has a safe place to live/sleep. It is unacceptable that the UK has so many homeless on its streets.

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