‘People think we are all junkies’ - The heartbreaking stories of rough sleepers in Norfolk

The Surviving Winter appeal will this year place additional focus on supporting rough sleepers. Pict

The Surviving Winter appeal will this year place additional focus on supporting rough sleepers. Pictures: Archant, St Martins, Thinkstock Images - Credit: Archant

As this year's Surviving Winter appeal is launched, the harsh realities of sleeping on the streets have been shared by some of those unfortunate enough to have experienced them.

Surviving Winter appeal: David. Picture: St Martins

Surviving Winter appeal: David. Picture: St Martins - Credit: St Martins

From feelings of isolation and loneliness, to just fighting the elements, the hardships of sleeping rough can only really be understood by those that have had to face it.

Today, five individuals share their experiences of life on the streets and how they have been helped - through support services the appeal will help to fund.

David's story:

Surviving Winter appeal: Lee Picture: St Martins

Surviving Winter appeal: Lee Picture: St Martins - Credit: St Martins

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David was homeless on and off for a number of years, prior to his involvement with St Martins. He spent some time in prison and struggled to readjust to civilian life.

He said: "Sleeping on the street is not easy - trying to find somewhere you will not be disturbed is the hard.

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"You always get moved on and for me, I like to keep clean, and I did manage that even if I had to find a river to wash in.

"You have to leave possession round people's and gradually they get smaller and smaller because you can't carry them about."

Surviving Winter appeal: Lorraine Picture: St Martins

Surviving Winter appeal: Lorraine Picture: St Martins - Credit: St Martins

When he was growing up, he found himself involved in the wrong crowds and in the 1970s he got embroiled in drug culture. In the 1980s he was sentenced to more than three years in prison after burgling a chemist.

More recently, he fell on hard times after the breakdown of a relationship, but the help of St Martins has allowed him to develop computer skills and a love of photography.

He now shares his experiences of the dangers of drug and alcohol reliance with others seeking the charity's help

Surviving Winter appeal: Robbie Picture: St Martins

Surviving Winter appeal: Robbie Picture: St Martins - Credit: St Martins

Lorraine's story

Former rough sleeper Lorraine said women on the streets can face a different range of challenges.

She said: "When you are living on the streets, especially as a woman, you come across people you think are trying to help you, but they are not, they are out for themselves.

"I've had men come onto me when I thought they were helping but they just weren't. It got a bit fiery.

"I was living in tents, sheds, on sofas; here, there and everywhere.

"I ended up in hospital and just didn't want to live any more. I told them that too.

"I had a little dog and when she was put to sleep I said wanted to go with there.

"Then I was offered a place in St Martins and I said yes.

"If you are out there on your own, you do not have much of a chance. However, here you do - you just feel human again."

Scotty's story Scotty moved to Norwich from Aberdeen around 14 years ago and for 10 years lived in a property on Woodrow Place in Norwich.

However, he said the introduction of bedroom tax led to him being unable to afford to stay and he says he has lived on the streets for the past two-and-a-half years.

He said: "It was my first flat and I had lived there for 10 years. How many other people live in their first flat for 10 years? Not many.

"It is so hard sleeping on the street, it is freezing and you constantly get moved on and on a number of occasions I've been banned from the city centre.

"The biggest problem there is that all of our help is within the inner ring road."

Scotty, a 36-year-old former brick layer, added: "People think they know what it is like because they see it every day - but they really don't.

"People look down at us, as if we are all junkies and yes there are people on the streets who take drugs, but not all of us do. I don't.

"I would challenge anybody who has ever looked down on a rough sleeper to come and spend a week in our shoes and see what it is really like. They will then see just how hard it is."

Scotty has been working with the Pathways team and says he hopes to have accommodation within the next few weeks.

Lee's story

A heroin addiction took Lee from a privileged upbringing to living on the streets and serving time in prison.

He said: "My early life was brilliant - I was spoiled rotten, went to a good school and went on skiing holidays.

"I used to work hard all week then go raving at the weekend, take loads of pills, loads of coke, loads of crack...I smoked heroin until about four years ago. Then boom, here I am.

"Things got really bad so I ended up on the streets, taking loads of drugs, walking around with idiots and letting people down.

"I didn't care if it landed me in prison, I just wanted that hit."

However, he said after seeking the help of St Martins, he has been able to "get his head together".

He added: "I'm still not where I want to be and [living on the streets] is a miserable existence. But if you put a bit of work into it people like St Martins will help you and communicate with you."

Lee currently lives in a move on flat at Dibden Road, emergency, short term accommodation provided by the charity where people can stay for up to two years until a more permanent solution can be found.

Robbie's story

Robbie has been supported by St Martins for more than 30 years, having spent around 20 years living on the streets in Yarmouth.

He said: "I remember at one point when I was living in Yarmouth I would sleep in skips or just get under flattened cardboard boxes, just to get some peace and quiet and a bed for the night.

"You're left to sleep with one eye open and one eye shut, because you never know who is about.

"I do not think anybody should be on the streets.

"The first time I went to St Martins it was a real struggle, but they found a bed for me.

"I did not really know where I was, whether it was a church or a house, but I stayed there for a while."

Robbie is now settled at Webster Court, one of the services St Martins offers to people older than 50 years old.

"I know I'm on my way out and I don't have much time, but this is my resting place now."

How you can help

Something as simple as a smile or a hello can go a long way when supporting a rough sleeper this winter - according to the boss of one of the leading sources of help for those living on the streets.

Jan Sheldon, chief executive of St Martins Housing Trust - the lead partner in the Pathways scheme - works with such vulnerable people on a day-to-day basis and is well aware of the many challenges they face.

She said: "When people are sleeping on the streets they end up feeling so isolated - they lack meaningful interaction with other people and often say they just do not feel human.

"Sometimes, even a warm smile and a good morning can make a world of difference to somebody.

"It's also so important not to judge everybody you see on the streets. Not all people who beg are homeless and not everybody who is homeless begs."

However, while Dr Sheldon accepts those who choose to hand out drinks, change and food are well-meaning, what she would really encourage people to impart is knowledge.

She said: "Giving out spare change, cups of coffees and sandwiches, for example, is not always the best way to support people.

"Of course it comes from a charitable and well-meaning place, but it mainly acts as a sticking plaster. The key thing to give somebody is the information on where to find the help and support they need."

A key way of doing this is through an information leaflet signposting all the locations across Norwich that rough sleepers can seek the support of Pathways - a leaflet available from St Martins' base on Bishopsgate.

"Everybody is an individual that needs specialised support," Dr Sheldon added. "We are here to give that support and have 50 years of experience in doing so."

The housing charity is part of a multi-organisational approach to tackling rough sleeping in the city area, alongside City Reach, Health Services The Feed, Future Projects, The Salvation Army, Shelter and the YMCA, which was launched in July 2018.

"The multi-discipline work is working really well," Dr Sheldon said. "People are starting to know you can go through one door to access a range of different pieces of support, which has really helped."

Why do people end up on the streets?

While those experiencing it endure the same hardships, there is no one reason why somebody may end up sleeping on the streets.

Dr Sheldon said while it would generally stem from a sudden and unexpected change in circumstances, each individual had their own unique set of circumstances.

This makes it increasingly difficult for organisations like St Martins to set about tackling the issue, with the charities well aware of the broad spectrum of reasons somebody may end up sleeping rough.

Dr Sheldon said: "It can be a whole range of things. Often you find it stems from things like breakdowns in relationships, losing a job or being unable to make rent for whatever reason.

"People may also end up on the streets due to complex needs, issues with substances or if they have served time in prison.

"There is no one single thing though, and the difficult thing is that it can happen to anybody and it can happen at any time."

How to donate

Help elderly and vulnerable people stay warm, fed and sheltered this winter by donating to the Surviving Winter campaign.

The campaign is urging older people who do not need their winter fuel allowance to donate it to those who desperately do, as many are faced with choosing between paying the bills and putting food on the table.

Funds raised in the appeal will be distributed to a range of good causes across Norfolk, including the foundation trust's key partners Age UK Norfolk, Norwich Foodbank and St Martins Housing Trust.

To donate, Visit the Surviving Winter appeal donation page at www.norfolkfoundation.com/news-events/launch-of-the-surviving-winter-appeal or call Norfolk Community Foundation on 01603 623 958.

You can donate by cheque made payable to Norfolk Community Foundation and send it to Norfolk Community Foundation, St James Mill, Whitefriars, Norwich, NR3 1TN

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