October 23, 2023
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.
Find out more about how the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness champions accurate writing and story telling about homelessness.
Having a consistent place to call home is a very valuable and reassuring thing, even more so when one’s abode is safe, well maintained, and provides the basic amenities that allow us to keep warm, clean, able to cook and feel protected from difficulties – and the amenities are relative to living in a Western European environment. I would definitely include good neighbours as part of being in a nice home as they make life more comfortable, for sure. I never appreciated how valuable my own home was until I experienced homelessness.
I’ve experienced homelessness on a few occasions because of my personal difficulties and circumstances. When homeless, I considered it matter-of-factly, just how my life was, nothing complicated, just something I had to deal with.
My first experience of homelessness was when I was living in someone’s flat, knowing that the shelter was given was dependent on if I could provide them with what they needed – class A drugs. I couldn’t give them money because that would’ve affected my drug use, as buying drugs in bulk and giving it to him in smaller amounts saved me money. Having that sort of relationship with my ‘landlord’ brought about other issues, such as me resenting him and vice versa, because of the fragile symbiotic relations we had and other extreme problems that came with living in a ‘crack house’, such as regular police raids, violent incidents, and constant concern about my physical welfare, magnified concern about my financial welfare because I knew other addicts would possibly try and take what was mine.
Living in a place like that gave me no feeling of security in regards to having a roof over my head for a specific period. I did prefer it to the possibility of living on the streets, that’s for sure.
That period wasn’t to last long because a good friend and his wife offered me and my then girlfriend their generous hospitality; we could stay at their four bed house, in a nice village called Clifton, in Bedfordshire, for as long as we needed. The only condition was that we get clean, no class A drugs. I accepted their kind offer but my girlfriend didn’t want to stop using drugs, and so she didn’t come. Eventually that would be her downfall as she was found dead in 2005, whilst I was in prison, of a suspected heroin overdose. She wasn’t even 30 years old.
The first time I knew someone who was homeless I was around 17 or 18 years old and a friend of mine who was 16 had been kicked out by his dad and step-mum. Sometimes he would stay on my sofa but during the day when me and my father were at work he would have to leave and usually he’d hang around on the streets, getting into trouble, wandering around North London. Eventually my dad said he couldn’t stay any more. The main reason was because of his personal hygiene and the front room would always smell when he stayed; he was given the opportunity to use the shower etc. but didn’t – I felt sorry for him but my dad’s decision was final.
The worst experiences I had when homeless was staying in ‘crack-houses’ and in 2007, I was 27, and sofa surfing and staying in a lot of hotels around Manor House and Finsbury Park in North London. I found myself in the nastiest place I’ve ever stayed in. It was a dilapidated and spooky squat on Green Lanes.
It was a big house, about five bedrooms plus a big basement area that was flooded in about one foot of water and who knows what else. A lot of the area’s most dangerous and notorious drug users, criminals and dealers would frequent it, as well as prostitutes and of course the Old Bill would turn up a lot, not really wanting to explore the place, even though they knew what was going on in there, but they had to be seen to be doing their bit for the community and appease the neighbours or shop owners who called them.
Most of the squat smelt disgusting, of urine, vomit, faeces and was littered with crack pipes, used needles, condoms and other things that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t want to share their space with. To me it was a place I could access whenever I wanted to get off the streets and use drugs. I would take heroin just to take away the pains of withdrawal.
Another good thing about the squat, for someone with an addiction, was that there were a lot of places I used to hide my drugs, money and valuable items, so I didn’t fear the police catching me with drugs, or when taking my drugs. I also needed to know that when I passed out from the stupor of heroin intoxication, or the exhaustion of sometimes spending three or four days awake, that no one else would go through my pockets and find my stuff, as I would do to them if I found them asleep.
What a terrible condition my life was in for those several months in 2007. Not surprisingly, it ended in the early summer that year with me on remand for attempted robbery, with imitation firearm and I received from Snaresbrook Crown Court an IPP (Indeterminate sentence, for public protection), basically a discretionary life sentence. I was grateful to Allah that I’d been imprisoned and forced to stop taking drugs and committing crime, because no matter how much I wanted to change whilst I was free, I just couldn’t.
During that time I had enough money to rent a decent flat for at least a year, and have a lot of money left over, but the chaos of addiction intervened.
For all my experiences of homelessness, I’m left grateful and humbled, given humility, because prior to experiencing these problems I was always very judgmental of people experiencing homelessness and addiction. I would ignorantly and arrogantly look down on them and vilify them. Thankfully this hasn’t been my condition since 2004, so thanks to Allah for the hardships and ease that follow them and the changes of attitude and character that come from experience.