Rough sleepers aren’t statistics – we meet the real people living on the margins

Homelessness and rough sleeping are big news as politicians use the issues to make political capital. But behind the headlines are real people living on the margins of society. Stuart Baillie recently joined the outreach workers from the Seaview Project on one of their regular rounds of the town, to find out about the real lives and very real people behind the headlines.

When my alarm went off at 3.45am last Thursday morning I really didn’t want to get up, after all I was warm, cosy, comfortable and it was a bit nippy outside.

After a minute or so I forced myself from under the duvet, remembering how lucky I was, and determined to keep my date with Mick and Debbie the outreach workers from the Seaview Project in St Leonards who go out three times a week to check on the rough sleepers in and around our town – people who would not be as warm and comfortable in their beds as I was in mine.

It’s a year since I first found out about Seaview; since I met Annie Whelan, Seaview’s Chief Officer and Sue Burgess the Projects Manager and since I started to find out about the amazing work that goes on at the Southwater Centre in Hatherly Road that has housed the Seaview Project for most of the last 30 years.

The Seaview Project is located in a rather anonymous building in St Leonards.

In one of the first meetings I had with Annie and Sue I’d heard about the outreach work that goes on three times a week, every week, as Seaview’s staff go out and make contact with the rough sleepers, checking they are okay, that they know where they can get support, a hot meal, a shower and a change of clothes and doing simple things too like reminding them of appointments with doctors or other professionals.

When I first heard about the work I recognised immediately just how important it was but it sounded a bit formal, a bit starchy – do-gooders going out to ‘do their bit’ I thought. What I saw though was something completely different, what I saw were two people totally dedicated to the job they do who know and understand the people they will see and who treat them with respect and as friends, not as ‘clients’ or ‘service users’.

It’s a 3am start three days a week for Mick Hillier and Debbie Hutchison as they keep channels of communication open with rough sleepers in Hastings and St Leonards.

Mick Hillier and Debbie Hutchison have been doing what they do for years and it shows. They have an easy, laid-back and relaxed style. Mick goes out on his early morning patrols armed with flasks of coffee, “…morning xxxxx do you want a coffee?” is not just a great way to break the ice but for the people who’ve been sleeping rough, a hot cup of coffee can be very welcome indeed first thing in the morning.

While I was out we ‘made contact’ with 32 rough sleepers all over Hastings and St Leonards and Mick and Debbie knew them all by their first names, they knew their histories and they knew their habits and little foibles. Importantly the people we met all know Mick and Debbie and it is so very clear from the conversations – some lasting just a few seconds – that they trust them too.

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One of the key aims of the early morning patrols is to make sure that those sleeping rough are safe and well. The day I went out there was a young woman who Mick and Debbie had not made contact with for a few days and they were a little concerned about where she might be. They asked around and soon discovered that she had simply gone back to stay with her mother. While that was what they had thought would be the case as it was a pattern of behaviour they had seen before, they were relieved to know for sure that she was okay and could note that down in their records.

We travelled all over the town and I discovered nooks and corners of Hastings and St Leonards that I didn’t know existed. By the end of my three-hour stint I’d also started to look at the townscape in a different way, spotting places where there was likely to be enough shelter and that were suitably out of the way to make good spots to bed down for the night.

My time with Mick and Debbie helped dispel a few myths and put the issue of rough sleeping in to some kind of context.

Yes there has been an increase in the number of people sleeping rough in recent years and yes that does have something to do with the changes to benefits and the introduction of Universal Credit but, despite what politicians might like to tell you, rough sleeping is an issue that will never be completely eradicated.

For a small but significant proportion of the people sleeping rough in our town, they are making a conscious choice. For whatever the reason – and there are many – they prefer the life they have to one inside.

Mick tells the story of one man he sees on a regular basis who did, for a time, manage to establish himself in a flat. He felt cooped-up and trapped within his four walls though. On the street he had some status, people looked up to him and asked his advice, inside his flat he told Mick he felt lonely, isolated and alone so chose to come back to live on the streets with the people he knew and with people who understood him.

I’ve never experienced sleeping rough and until last week had never really had a lot of direct contact with rough sleepers.

In my mind rough sleeping is a solitary thing; one individual, in one doorway or on one park bench, taking care of themselves. What I found was very different, what Mick and Debbie showed me in a few locations around the town were small ‘communities’ or areas where maybe up to six or eight people would congregate and sleep in close proximity to each other and in the process keep an eye out for each other and provide a level of protection that being part of a group can provide.

The reasons why people end up on the streets are many and varied; some have simply fallen on hard times, other may have mental health issues or have a drug dependency. Many will actively seek help for their issues and Debbie and Mick can provide a link, a lifeline even, to the help that is available. At the moment one of the rough sleepers they are seeing has recently come out of a drug rehabilitation programme and Debbie and Mick hope that by having direct contact with him they can help and encourage him to stay clean.

The Big Sleep has been running in Hastings for a number of years and is Seaview’s single biggest fundraising event each year.

As the sun started to rise I realised I was looking at Hastings and St Leonards in a different kind of way and was understanding the issues of rough sleeping in a way I never had before. I could simply have done an interview with Annie and Sue at the Seaview Centre and gone off and written a factual piece about the outreach service and quoted facts and figures. While I might have understood what the service was and how it operated I would not have had the pleasure and honour of meeting Mick and Debbie, I would not have come to understand their hard work and dedication and I would not have met some of the town’s rough sleepers and come to understand that they’re not really very different from you and me… there but for the grace of god etc.

Something else struck me that morning, something I’d never given a moment’s thought to and that was how the homeless and rough sleepers spend their days, how they fill their time?

When they wake tends to be governed by the rising of the sun and by when the communities around them start to wake up. That can mean they are up by 6.30 or 7am and probably unable to settle themselves down until 10.30 or 11pm. With no money to go and do ‘things’ just consider how you would fill perhaps 16 hours every day – it’s a sobering thought.

As we reached the end of our ‘shift’ Mick and I were taking a walk to check on a couple he knows well. We found them and they were fine but with them was a young man Mick hadn’t met before and we chatted.

Mick explained about Seaview and said: “There’s breakfast from 8.30am.”

The young man looked down, somewhat forlorn, then looked up at Mick and said: “I can’t, I’m skint mate.”

So Mick told him it was a Thursday and on a Thursday breakfast at Seaview was free. Now I cannot put in to words the expression that came over that man’s face; was it relief, joy, gratefulness? I really don’t know, but what I do know is that knowing he could get a free cooked meal was clearly the best bit of news he’d had in a long time and that just emphasised to me what the work of Seaview and of people like Mick and Debbie is really all about.

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7 thoughts on “Rough sleepers aren’t statistics – we meet the real people living on the margins

  1. Nice article, but I have got to say that to start the piece by trying to take the politics out of it ? Not sure who your trying to make feel better. There has been a massive rise in people finding themselves with out support, money, a home and this is a direct result to the austerity programme and universal credits driven by this Tory government.
    When a good level of funds and resources were available the numbers of people actually sleeping rough in Hastings was 3! Now with snowflake closing after the winter we will see the numbers hit 40+ very soon .
    This is a national disgrace fueled by a national Tory governments policies.
    My officers and partnership organisations do all they can to help and support but if the national government keeps driving more and more vulnerable into desperate situations those at the front line are fighting a losing battle.
    Local and national conservative politicians need to held to account for this human crisis on our streets.

  2. Cllr Batsford…. why can’t you like most politicians, just read a good piece of work and congratulate the journo and the team he’s writing about, praising their amazing and dedicated work without trying to point score on some political scale ?

    If you read the whole article it clearly says that no matter what ANY political party or ANY money anyone provides, you’ll NEVER eradicate rough sleeping. It’s clearly a choice for some very vulnerable people who are taken advantage of by others.

    So it doesn’t matter if Labour or the Tories are in power, rough sleeping will always exist.

    A great thoughtful piece of journalism praising work by some very dedicated caring people. A journo who had preconceived ideas about rough sleepers who then admits he’s humbled by what he’s seen and feels very lucky himself.

    Keep up the good work with news about local issues and local people.

  3. Great article and such a shame that Councillor Andy Batsford had to have a little dig at the author…what is the matter with this man? This article is important and needs to be read by everyone. One point here – many homeless people have a pet dog – a pet which is so very important to them and yet there does not appear to be any move to make pet friendly respite sanctuaries for these people and their pets. There should be a concerted effort to make arrangements to provide places where dogs and their owners are welcome. Banish these much loved animal friends and you will cause heartbreak.

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