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Rather Than Just Being Reminded About The Homeless At Christmas, Here’s What We Can Do To Help

by : Poppy Bilderbeck on : 31 Dec 2021 09:32
Rather Than Just Being Reminded About The Homeless At Christmas, Here's What We Can Do To HelpAlamy

One day, Sam* had a fight with his mum. He thought it was ‘just a normal argument,’ until she turned around and kicked him out.

Sofa surfing is an aspect of homelessness that is often not spoken about enough. In turn, the potentially damaging effects it can have on a person’s mental wellbeing and safety are difficult to gauge or adequately support.

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Adverts always ramp up around Christmas to raise awareness of homelessness, but do we really understand the various difficulties people can face, or how we can truly help?

Young people, in particular, are often subject to homelessness in the form of sofa surfing, bouncing from one friend’s house to the next, leaving them extremely vulnerable and in some cases, leading them to be targeted and mistreated by those with authority or power.

Paul from Centrepoint noted the lack of awareness there is around the issue of sofa surfing for young people, how the pandemic has impacted the state of young homelessness and the serious effects it could pose on their mental health. UNILAD also spoke to Sam about his experiences being homeless, and how a boss allegedly once took advantage of his vulnerable situation.

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Sam explained how he became homeless after being kicked out by his mum following an argument.

He said:

When she died two years later, I found out that the day that we had that argument was the day she came back from hospital.

I don’t know exactly when she was re-diagnosed with cancer, but I know she had cancer surgery on that day, or that she had it during that period. She was on a lot of morphine and really drugged up, and it really f*cks with your emotions and makes you irrational.

I thought my mum was just bugging out, but later obviously I realised that actually she was on drugs, sick and dying.

Paul noted how family breakdowns are the ‘main reason’ Centrepoint hears about young people being ‘kicked out by their family or feel forced to leave’. Other examples include a ‘lack of acceptance about their sexuality or violence at home’.

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Paul noted how some people don’t always take sofa surfing seriously, because it can seem quite fun, even for those forced into doing it.

As a result of being kicked out of the house, Sam himself spent many nights sofa surfing at different friends’ houses.

‘So after she kicked me out, I guess I sort of enjoyed the freedom. I was 17 and enjoying not having a parent telling me what to do. It was kind of fun, fun to be my own boss at 17, and not to have to answer to anybody,’ Sam said.

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However, Paul explained that one of the ‘big challenges of lockdown’ was that it made it a ‘lot harder’ for young people to sofa surf, in turn, meaning more nights would have to be spent on the street or in other public areas.

After a few nights, and when the fun of not having to conform to curfews or rules had worn off, Sam admitted that reality hit home.

He said:

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At times, I would be walking around and deep it, like I don’t actually have a house. And feeling that my parents didn’t care about me. It was really peak, and a bit painful. So I was lucky to have a good support system of friends, and friends of other people who saved me by letting me stay with them.

When Sam couldn’t find a friend’s house to stay at, he had to resort to other options, such as sleeping on the bus to Chingford, which he was forced to do one night, or going out partying. ‘On Saturdays, I would go to an all-night rave in the middle of nowhere and party all night, and then Sunday find somewhere,’ he admitted.

‘Looking back it wasn’t so fun. But yeah, that’s just what happened.’

Sam was sofa surfing and homeless for ‘about three months in total’.

‘How did I get out of it? I don’t actually know. I just ended up going back to my mums for a bit, after that summer. I did end up getting kicked out again at some point, when I was 18 and then I ended up getting my own house.’

In hindsight, despite enjoying the partying and freedom, Sam noted how being in that position can ‘really negatively affect you’.

‘At the time, it wasn’t so bad, but now that I’m older, looking back I realise how f*cked up it was. I got so skinny, I’m 6ft 3, so for me to be nine stone is a problem. I was really bony, partying all the time, and it was fun, but you don’t realise what an impact it can have on you and also your mental health,’ he said.

Moreover, Sam didn’t realise until a few years later how vulnerable to exploitation he had been during that time, with his boss having preyed on his difficult situation.

”Maybe we can talk about how I was working at the time of sofa surfing, because not many people know this, not even many of my friends… without going into too much detail, my boss at the time understood my vulnerability and exploited me for it. Over the period of being homeless I was being groomed by my boss, and sexually assaulted by him. By a grown man, and I was only 17.

‘It just kind of fizzled out. I didn’t really realise at the time what was going on. It was only maybe two, three years ago when I realised. I haven’t spoken to him, there’s been no interaction since,’ he reflected.

Paul from Centrepoint explained how a lot of people who come to the organisation haven’t been homeless for very long, which he noted was ‘good in a sense, but it also means they’re perhaps more at risk of exploitation as well’.

He said: ‘I think for me the key message is yes absolutely it can happen to anyone. Things like drugs and alcohol generally come after becoming homeless and are not a cause of homelessness, but the homelessness causes that substance abuse as a coping mechanism.’

Ahead of the harsher winter months, Sam also considered how being homeless and sofa surfing was made a lot easier for him because of it being summer.

‘I think winter and particularly covid would impact people in a similar situation to me by making it more difficult for them to make their own decisions, because it’s colder, and also the relative loneliness of Christmas, which is exacerbated by social media and advertising can be a bit disheartening. I definitely don’t like Christmas,’ he said.

Paul also explained that since the pandemic, finding alternative accommodation has been trickier. ‘Most wintertime, a lot of services open up to make sure no one has to sleep rough. Traditionally the way it works is church halls or community centres stick a load of beds on the floor, but that’s no longer recommended because of covid’.

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Sam eventually ended his period of homelessness by seeking a referral letter from his doctor about his vulnerability, which they sent to his borough.

However, with over 103,000 young people having approached their local council last year for help, Sam noted how he felt lucky to have found a solution ‘pretty quickly’, particularly when young people aren’t readily informed about where to seek help.

He said: 

I guess it’s about informing young people, especially in their transition ages from 15-18 of the options and resources available to them.

School really doesn’t teach you a lot about life skills, and I definitely think there should be some sort of conversation around the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the gaining of independence.

Not directly related to homelessness per say, but if I had known more of the steps to take, I wouldn’t have just been bouncing around and it could have been resolved quicker.

‘How do you expect adults to function in a world which they’ve not been properly prepared for? It’s just setting up people to fail. To go into a system and not know how the system operates,’ he added.

In the build-up to Christmas, Paul noted how there are ‘three main ways that members of the public’ can lend their support.

He explained:

First of all, there’s a national phone number called Street Link which allows them to report where people are rough sleeping, then Street Link pass it on to local authorities who will go visit them and support them directly, so it’s an important way to make sure no one’s missed out.

Also, there’s services like ourselves, so anyone who’s under 25 and homeless can contact us directly and we can talk them through all their options, support them and try and find them accommodation in their local area. But the other big one is their local council.

However, Paul said local councils ‘aren’t obliged to house everyone who’s homeless, but they are obliged to help, whether that’s advice or support with the next steps’.

He also referred to the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) which can be put into place to try to accommodate those who are homeless when temperatures drop. ‘One of the challenges around that is it’s down to the council to determine when it gets cold enough,’ he said.

Paul noted that one way the public can help is by ‘nudging the council’ when they don’t trigger it, and write to them about all the forms of rough sleeping.

‘I think the government does focus a huge amount on rough sleeping and does deprioritise any other sort of homelessness, so things like sofa surfing, staying in a car, or temporary accommodation. We know that sometimes that’s just the tip of the iceberg, even if they’re just sofa surfing or staying with mate, then having to go to work around that can really have a toll on our mental health and very easily spiral from that point,’ he said.

If you want to help, you can do so in ways more than just giving money, such as ‘buying someone a hot drink’ or ‘water as well, because quite often there’s no access to water, Paul noted.

Clothes too can be crucial for winter months, from gloves and scarfs to woolly hats, but ‘the main thing is speaking with people, and engaging with them on a human level’.

‘Trying to empower people and having that conversation,’ Paul advised.

Sam noted how just because you end up sofa surfing or homeless for a period of time, it doesn’t mean you can’t turn your life around for the better.

He said: ‘I want to reassure people that you can make a complete 180 like I did. I now have a house in London, and I’m living in Dublin. So I’ve gone from being homeless to having two different places in two different countries. So things can get better.’

Sam is currently an intern at a successful company after he recently completed his degree at university. He is also pursuing a career in music.

‘My life is now so far removed from being homeless. I almost have this disassociation, like I can’t believe that was actually me.’

*Some names have been changed for the purposes of this article.

If you are a young person aged between 16 and 25 and are worried about being made homeless, then you can contact Centrepoint on 0808 800 0661 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm) or visit their website 

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas

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Topics: Featured, Homelessness, Mental Health, winter