A forgotten community, sleeping in doorways, huddled in grimy corners sheltering from the weather. Admit it, how many times have you walked past a homeless person pretending not to see or hear them? I know I have and, with the numbers on the streets growing at an alarming rate, it stabs at the collective conscience.
Risha and her partner Hendrix Lancaster wanted to do something to help after the death of Risha’s brother Craig in 2013. He suffered from mental health issues and had been homeless for some time. Just 37-years-old when he died of an overdose in a car park in Cardiff, his decline came as a massive shock to his friends and family.
“I only saw him a couple of times a year,” says Risha. “He used to be the life and soul, always trying to help others. He had worked at a kids home and been a scaffolder but then his relationship broke down and he never really recovered from it. That was when he started to have problems. He couldn’t really settle in the community, he wouldn’t take his medication and he became homeless as a result.
“Despite all of this he had been volunteering for Lifeshare, an organisation that helps people aged between 18 and 25. He knew what the homeless needed and wanted, and even had ideas about starting a family business. After he died I had to do something constructive as a tribute to him so we went round some of the homeless areas of Manchester, gave out coffee and said it was from Craig.”
When I meet the couple in Manchester city centre, we pass a number of homeless people. Risha and Hendrix know many by name and advise them where to go for food and shelter. The evening’s forecast is for -4 and they want to get them inside for the night.
In the US, many people are said to be just one paycheck away from the street. Hendrix has his own thoughts as to the most common causes of homelessness in Britain.
“People just assume someone is homeless due to laziness or addiction but it’s hardly ever that,” he says. “There are all sorts of reasons. A relationship breakdown, parents kicking you out, moving back after a spell abroad and not being entitled to support, rent arrears, redundancy, the list goes on. People find themselves in all sorts of circumstances that they never expected to be in.
“If a loved one has passed away in a two bedroom council flat, there’s bedroom tax and funeral costs to be met and people end up in arrears. They can’t pay the debt so the debt gets bigger and so it goes on. You might ask the council to move you somewhere cheaper but they won’t let you because you’re in arrears so you get kicked out. It’s a vicious cycle. If you go to a private landlord you have to pay a huge deposit plus rent and people just don’t have that amount of money. About 70 per cent of the people we see are male but there are also a lot of couples. You don’t automatically get a duty of care if you’re pregnant. You need to be 30 weeks before they have to house you.”
From the initial handing out of hot drinks to some of the homeless in Manchester in 2013, just a few days after Craig died, the couple now run Coffee4Craig. Hendrix is amazed at how quickly things have progressed.
“We started out just raising awareness and offering a bit of a chat and a coffee from Craig. Suddenly we were doing three food kitchens a week offering what we could. We did our research about what was missing by asking the guys what they needed and wanted. Then we tried to fill those gaps, in particular offering a weekend and evening service. It just snowballed from there to housing our clients, making connections with landlords, sign-posting into other agencies and learning as we go.
“We were lucky to be taken under the wing of the staff at Lifeshare in Manchester. We both come from backgrounds of care and security so we knew the sorts of issues that people face. Craig’s ideas inspired us and we just needed to carry on that work. We started it out of our own pockets, launching our first weekend street kitchen at the start of 2014.”
Although there is no definite statistic for the UK’s homeless population, the most recent government figures suggest that the number of people sleeping rough on any one night has risen by 55 per cent since 2010.
Risha says: “It’s very evident in Manchester that numbers are growing. However a lot of them are not actually homeless. Many have a place to stay but may not be able to afford the upkeep and some are simply addicted to begging. You can’t really tell until you start working with existing charities and projects.
“A lot of people genuinely want to help but don’t know how. My advice is don’t ever give money or food. The problem now is that homelessness is in the papers a lot and the profile is high so everybody’s feeding now. You can find places that give out food throughout the day and, as a result, one of the big problems now is rat infestation in the city with all the leftover food handed out.
“The best thing you can do is find a charity you like the look of, do some research on it then volunteer your time. There are many organisations you can help. You can also just offer advice – there’s an app called Street Support that lists all the services available – advice, a wash, housing – that the homeless can access. This is the kind of practical help anyone can offer. It is easy to feel manipulated by some of the people on the street like those who sit beneath cash points but don’t let that sway you from being constructive about the help you offer. General empathy and the desire to want to give is amazing but you need to channel and harness it and work out how you can give your time and money to its utmost effect.”
Risha and Hendrix go out most nights to help in any way they can. It isn’t for the faint-hearted but they are committed to offering practical assistance. Hendrix is under no illusions about the work that they do.
“It is incredibly upsetting, mentally draining and emotionally tortuous but it is also empowering and invigorating, as well as incredibly dangerous. We usually go out in threes – one to get help and two to deal with the situation. We have to be wary of needles and the HIV risk, open sores and hepatitis. A lot of people are now smoking spice that offers a legal high. This can cause psychosis so if you say the wrong thing to someone they can get very aggressive. Kids taking pics on Facebook is now risking the safety of guys on the street. The location of their sleeping spot goes online and then you get idiots coming out of pubs wanting to go and kick them in.”
Despite all the work they have put in, both know there is still a lot more to be done. They have big plans.
Risha explains: “Our aim is to provide a seven days a week food provision so there’s always some place for people to come at any time and we’d also like access to a building, preferably in the middle of the city, and turn it into a night-time hostel where people can turn up and we can work with them offering a shower, clean clothes and other necessities. The problem with this is that, at the moment, we wouldn’t get planning permission. You need that in order to be able to provide people with a place to sleep. Hostels get it so I don’t know why a shelter for the homeless is harder to set up. Right now there is no place you can self refer in the UK. If anyone out there has a space we could consider or even a piece of land we could use as a base that would be incredible.”
Anyone who wants to offer their time and talent (people with experience in fundraising and writing bids are especially needed) should contact Risha or Hendrix at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.
You can also get in touch via their Facebook page here.