‘It can happen to anybody’ - One author’s journey to understand homelessness

PUBLISHED: 13:53 24 November 2019 | UPDATED: 07:42 25 November 2019

Author Robert Ashton has published

Author Robert Ashton has published "any spare change" exploring homlessness in Norwich. Picture: Ella Wilkinson


“I met people who had successful careers that have lost their job, their homes and their families. It really can happen to anybody.”

Author Robert Ashton has published Author Robert Ashton has published "any spare change" exploring homlessness in Norwich. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

This was just one of the lessons author Robert Ashton took from his quest to better understand homelessness in Norwich.

Mr Ashton, from Wymondham, spent the majority of the summer speaking to people on the streets and those involved with supporting them in a bid to gather a stronger understanding of the challenges facing rough sleeping.

And he hopes that by recording these experience in a new book will help others develop more empathy towards those unfortunate enough to spend their time on the streets.

He said: "The idea came to me during a Quaker's meeting in which we were discussing how we could help the homeless better. It dawned on me that none of us really knew for certain or could agree on how to do it.

"I then decided that the best way to learn about it was to speak to as many people as I could with experience of it and share what I learned."

After gathering dozens of stories, the 64-year-old wrote 'Any Spare Change? One man's quest to understand rough sleeping', the proceeds from which will support St Martins' winter fundraising appeal.

He said: "To start with, I thought I had a good grasp of what it was like but what I very quickly realised was I did not know much at all.

"Some of the stories really got to me. I spoke to a lady called Rita who used to work in banking in London and told me how she would walk past rough sleepers and never picture herself in that position; how she thought of the homeless as losers.

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"However, she developed a mental health condition had a breakdown and lost everything. It really hit home that it can happen to anybody."

The book is available from Book Hive, Jarrold's, Revelation and Kinda Café, with retailers agreeing to donate all proceeds to St Martins.

"I think the most important thing I've learned is the difference something as simple as eye contact or just acknowledging someone is there can make," Mr Ashton added. "Even though you are surrounded by thousands of people, the city can be a very lonely place to be."

How you can 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 or call Norfolk Community Foundation on 01603 623 958.

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

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