Stockport is just like any other large town in the UK.
It has a bog-standard shopping centre, an industry it was the centre of years ago but has now pretty much died (it’s hats, in case you’re wondering), and a football team that they blindly follow regardless of their plight.
But, like other towns up and down the country, it has seen a massive rise in people becoming homeless and sleeping rough. Since David Cameron’s Tory government took power in 2010, there has been a 40 per cent surge in homelessness and it shows no sign of slowing down.
We went along to homeless charity The Wellspring in Stockport who have been on the frontline, tackling this growing problem head on for over two decades.
A Shocking Look Into What It’s Like To Be HomelessMore and more people are rough sleeping on the streets. We spoke to a homeless charity who gave us an eye-opening look into the reality of what life is like being homeless…
Posted by UNILAD on Sunday, 17 January 2016
The Wellspring offers a variety of services to help homeless people and gives preventative assistance and support for drugs, alcohol, housing benefits, employment and mental health issues.
Project Manager at The Wellspring, Jonathan Billings, 40, has been at the charity for over 16 years and has seen an unprecedented rise in homelessness, especially in recent years.
We took an extensive tour of the common homeless hotspots in the town with Jonathan, along the River Mersey, checking out areas underneath supermarkets and even a cave network on the outskirts.
They have since been abandoned, but it’s a massive eye-opener to us all to witness the desolate, grubby and bleak conditions people have to stay in to get a bit of shelter away from the bitter winter weather.
More and more people are living in these grim conditions. The Wellspring revealed that in 2013, they supported 124 known homeless people. This rose to 340 in 2014 and in 2015 they helped over 400 homeless people in Stockport alone. More than three times the number they were helping just three years ago.
It’s difficult to point to any one particular issue that has contributed to the rise, whether it’s welfare cuts, the housing shortage, and the availability of legal highs which many have turned to in their time of crisis.
There is stuff being done by the government, a lot of people see them as the big bad wolf that wants to see anyone homeless. They’re not, but some of the decisions they have made have been hard hitting on the poorest of people and that needs to be reversed. More services need to be put in place and some of these drastic cuts made to essential support staff, dealing with substance abuse, social workers, mental health workers, housing officers have certainly not helped.
With these cuts, it’s made services like these absolutely vital to their community. But, despite all the help they can give out, it’s still a sad inevitability that they will suffer tragic losses among the homeless.
It’s very sad [to see people die]. We have a remembrance board with pictures of our members who have died over the last few years and it’s getting harder and harder to put people’s pictures up on that board. It’s not a pleasant side to the job. I have been to more funerals then I care to remember, it is very sad.
He refers to a number of different cases, but what seems to stick in Jonathan’s memory more than any is that of the tragic death of Stefan Tomkins. The 31-year-old was crushed to death after the bin he was sleeping in was loaded onto a bin lorry.
It can be really difficult. We all support each other, as we are a very small team. One thing we always keep to the forefront of our work is that you never know when your last conversation with anyone is going to be, so we try and keep those conversations really positive because you never know if it’s going to be the last time you’ll speak to that person.
Despite these difficult losses to take, the team have seen 8,000 positive outcomes in 2015. Whether they’ve helped people overcome substance abuse problems, homelessness or those on the cusp of homelessness, they’ve been giving people the lifeline they’ve so desperately needed.
I’m really lucky to have this job. Its really refreshing. Every day is different, you get to meet so many different people, do different things. I could be doing my shopping in Tesco and someone will bump into me and say ‘you helped me get into a place 12 months ago, I’ve got a job and a flat, I don’t need to visit you anymore’. They’re completely different people and it’s becoming more and more frequent. It keeps us motivated to keep coming to work to try to help more people. That’s all we want to do.
There’s a common misconception from the general public that homeless people are where they are because of drink, because of drugs, but as you speak to these people and they open up, you realise there were other issues at play. Abandonment, abuse, heartache. They use substances as a coping mechanism, a way to escape the harsh reality of their tragic situations.
Kenneth is 52 and has been homeless for 15 years, on and off. He found his ex-wife in bed with his best mate when he was living in Derbyshire. Devastated by the betrayal of the two closest to him and the abrupt end to his marriage, he turned to drink.
Using it to ‘block things out’, he’s stayed anywhere for shelter, from under bridges, to doorways and even in cardboard bins – which is a huge risk and one he is all too aware of.
I’ve seen two mates get killed in cardboard bins – I’ve had my best mate die next to me, in Manchester. It’s hard being on the street, it makes you hard. I’m not scared anymore. The first time I saw someone die I was scared, it made me think to myself, ‘am I next?’ But it’s a way of life, being on the street you have to expect that. I’ve been close to death so many times now, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
He isn’t wrong. Reeling off his scrapes with death, Kenneth, says he almost died twice of pneumonia and also had a terrifying encounter with two drunk blokes, who hit him over the head with a machete.
People spit at you, people kick you, homeless people are called scum in Stockport and Manchester, they’re not scum, the people kicking them, treating them like dogs. They’re the scum, not us.
Kenneth has now been going to The Wellspring for ten years and has experienced a massive shift in his life.
Wellspring is a place of change, I thought I’d never ever change and they have changed me 100 per cent, they give me a purpose in life. They’ve given me my life back, my dignity back. Without this service, people wouldn’t survive, hundreds of people would be on the street.
Nicky, 30, had never experienced homelessness until just over two years ago. At just two-years-old he was left on the doorstep of a police station and didn’t really have a permanent home throughout his childhood.
Through his 20’s, he spent most of his time in prison and saw it as his home. Once he was out, he had nowhere to go.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, you’re only one step away from homelessness, never think you’re safe because you’re not.
He spent five months homeless and his children were taken into care. That’s when he turned to hard drugs.
I became reliant on heroin and crack because I couldn’t handle the nights on my own and I wanted to die. I’m a strong lad, I’m a tough lad, I like to think I am anyway and I can look after myself. But I hate being on my own and hate not knowing what is round the corner. I don’t care who you are, how big you are, it’s terrifying. When I was homeless, I didn’t know what was coming and I couldn’t deal with it.
After five months of homelessness, he could see no other way out than taking his own life. At first he tried injecting bleach, and ended up being in intensive care for months. Once out, he tried to commit suicide again by jumping off a bridge.
He survived the drop and, after camping out near the charity, he was discovered by workers and has received help from The Wellspring ever since. He has now been clean for 15 months.
I was playing Russian roulette with my life, but they have given me trust and I definitely wouldn’t be here now without their support.
For many, being homeless has become a way of life, after spending years on the streets. But some are fairly new to living on the streets.
Michelle, 57, has only been homeless since August last year, after her husband died and she could no longer afford the bills at their home.
She now stays in a hostel, but does have to resort staying on the streets, and has stayed in the infamous Stockport caves along with Emma Vellino, who fell 30ft off a cliff and broke her back in two places by living in these high-risk conditions.
It scares me to death. Living here is very frightening. People try to wee on you, spit on you, try and rob your bags even though you have no money.
To escape her new reality, Michelle has become an alcoholic and has also dabbled with legal highs. But, since she came to The Wellspring, she has been moved to a hostel nearby, given clothes, quilts and food.
I think I’d be dead or locked up if it wasn’t for The Wellspring, they’ve helped me get my life back.
We are in the midst of a homeless crisis and we are failing people like this. Without vital services like The Wellspring it could be even worse.