Homeless charity appeals for compassion for town's 750 'invisible' people
AS SWINDON tucks into a week of gastronomic festive celebrations, hundreds will be left out in the cold to scavenge for their Christmas dinner.
While families come together around the town to celebrate the season of goodwill, a handful of men and women who have no homes or families to go to will sleep rough in the doorways and car parks of Swindon.
Each year Threshold Housing Link helps more than 750 vulnerable people get off the streets and find a better way of life, but there are simply not enough systems in place to help support some of the town’s most needy.
Part of the trouble is that many people do not recognise how close they are to becoming homeless.
Babs Harris, the business manager at Threshold homelessness charity, said: “These days the living standard is very high, but on average everyone is only two missed pay packets away from being homeless, because people no longer have the reserves to prevent that from happening and they stretch their money as far as it will go.
“This time of year is particularly difficult for homeless people, when people get together and go out for parties and do their shopping, walking past laughing and joking. It is a real slap in the face if you are homeless and have no where to go.”
Another big problem is that there are not enough beds in emergency hostels to go round, and not enough council housing for any but the most vulnerable of people.
“The council hasn’t housed me because I’m not a priority,” said Robert Boston Thomas, 43, who has been on and off the streets for more than 20 years and has to carry his home on his back.
He said: “I carry it around – you can’t leave it anywhere because other people go through it. It’s heavy, and has caused all my back problems.
“I have supplies in there and a spare change of clothes and shoes. I wear everything until it falls apart.
“You do what you can to earn money or get food, whether it’s selling drugs or alcohol or other things.”
Robert thinks the situation could be helped if members of the public chose to address their plight rather than shun them.
He said: “Some people abuse us, spit on us, urinate on us. Others ignore us or shun us. They don’t like seeing us on the streets, but they don’t do anything about it. If you don’t like it, do something about it.
“We’re human beings, we’re not rats. But people treat us like rats.
“I don’t want to be sleeping in a car park, having to search for food and carry everything on my back. But I haven’t got a choice.”
Babs says the treatment Robert has sometimes received from members of the public is a sad fact of living life on the street, and that abuse grows worse during the party season.
She said: “Obviously it’s abysmal and it gets worse over Christmas.
“It tends to be groups of young men who do it when they are out during the party season, when they pass them in the car parks or in shop doorways.
“They think it’s funny. No one would ever do something like that when they were on their own walking down the street.”
Some of the most popular places to sleep rough are multi-storey car parks, which provide shelter from the wind and rain.
Robert said: “You can have a wash but there’s not a lot of point because then you have to sleep on the floor, where people have peed and it’s dirty and dusty. You do what you can to stay clean but you wake up filthy.”
Robert first became homeless when he was 21, and at first he enjoyed the lifestyle.
“It just happened,” he said. “I just went out with mates one day and decided to spend the night on a park bench. One night turned into two and before I knew it I was living on the streets.
“I would go and stay in hostels sometimes but then end up back on the streets.
“When I turned 40 I realised I didn’t want this any more. I’ve got arthritis and I don’t want to be here. But I can’t get anywhere to live, and who wants a member of staff who is filthy and lives on the streets?”
Robert thinks that the recent benefit cuts will have a huge effect on the number of homeless in the town. He said: “It’s a ticking time bomb. At the moment there are more people sleeping on other people’s sofas because they have been thrown out or they can’t pay their bills because of the cuts.
“And it’s been getting worse.
“A lot of the people out on the street have mental health issues as well as physical issues, but there isn’t much help for us.
“We all know each other and help each other. Sometimes when you hear that somebody died because of alcohol or an overdose it is worrying, but what can you do?”
Although the weather has been mild for this time of year, Threshold staff are concerned about how difficult it is for those out on the streets at this time of year.
The charity is always in need of warm blankets and coats, particularly during the winter, as well as food and other items they can use to help people who find themselves homeless around the town.
To donate food, blankets and warm coats, take the items to Culvery Court, in Harding Street. To find out more about Threshold, visit www.thl.org.uk or call 01793 524661.
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