Homeless and helpless in Wisbech. An Editor’s view

Homeless people in Wisbech gathering in the gardens of St Peter and St Paul's church. The image is d

Homeless people in Wisbech gathering in the gardens of St Peter and St Paul's church. The image is deliberately blurred,, at their request, to protect their identities. - Credit: Archant

Nine years ago almost the day – and by invitation – I joined a team of housing officials and representatives from charities for the homeless for the annual count of rough sleepers in Wisbech.

We split into two teams and from midnight to 4am scoured cemeteries, waste land, parks and derelict buildings for evidence of rough sleepers. In the event one team, not the one I was with, came across a lone Slovakian, bedded down for the night with a cardboard shelter and curled up inside a sleeping bag.

“A single night count is a snapshot,” was part of the guidelines from the Government who requested this annual exercise. It was conceded it may have not have been accurate but, the Government guidelines assured us, “is the most effective way of gauging the relative scale of the problem and of monitoring progress over time”.

Fast forward to last Thursday and, without invitation, I went out again into Wisbech but this time evidence of homelessness was immediate, overwhelming and truly horrific.

In the grounds of St Peter and St Paul’s church were up to a dozen homeless – some English and the rest mainly Lithuanian- and the stories they told were uncompromisingly raw and chilling.

They have issues with lost jobs, lost homes, alcohol and drugs and find themselves caught up daily in a spiralling crisis of hostility and anger from a community that simply can’t provide an answer for their needs. They tell stories of being physically and verbally assaulted by passers by, of being urinated on whilst asleep in the bushes, and even robbed of what few possessions they have.

The group I met, mostly young, gather here because extraordinarily it is the one place in Wisbech they feel ‘safe’. They are not the hardened older generation of drinkers you find most days on public benches or in public parks supping cans of beer but a motley and sad assembly of younger people who through whatever circumstances have led them here.

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One tells me: “We didn’t choose to be here. Before I came here I was working but then lost my job, my home and here I am.” He’s mid 20s, English, has served a short prison sentence, and has no income, no benefits and no family to support him.

His girl friend has, he freely admits, an issue with drugs and most nights they end up in a squat they share with up to 15 others.

“The house is dirty, people urinate everywhere, it stinks all the time and even when you get in at night through a window (the doors won’t open) you can see where the roof is falling in and plaster is coming off every wall,” he says.

“The other day I got hold of some steak but we’ve got no electricity. I was so hungry I ate it raw.”

The girl friend is in recovery from her drug addiction but remains vulnerable through sharing the squat with more prolific drug users; I was told thus far she’s resisted temptation and stuck with subutex, a drug used in the treatment of recovering addicts.

A Lithuanian chats to me, explaining that after a bleak period with no home and no job and no income, he had that day begun a new job. Luckily for him, at least, Wisbech has some Good Samaritans.

He explained how one of a handful of volunteers who turn up to provide the homeless with coffee or warm drinks had helped to find him a room, paid the deposit and kept a promise to help find him a job.

“A stranger helped me,” he says but still recalls his time on the streets and particularly the night he spent in a hostel when he went for a shower and found someone next to him injecting heroin.

“I understood that person – I realised he can’t stop it else it’d kill him,” he says. “Some inject themselves and can handle it.”

On this night he proved adept at translating for others and was anxious for me know what life as a homeless person is like.

“I once dropped a cigarette end and this enforcement guy came up and started writing a fixed penalty ticket,” he says.

“I laughed. I told him I have no passport, no home and no job. How do I pay you? With rocks or stones?” He hopes his new job will soon finance a replacement passport.

One of his friends told me he hears “every day of people losing their houses. Some are now sleeping in their own car because there’s nowhere they can go. Most of the time you can find a double room to let but at £125 a week that’s simply not possible for many people. People are struggling.”

Another tells me of what’s it like to be shunned by those who walk through the gardens and hurl abuse.

“We’ve had people standing here and laughing at us,” he says. “We didn’t choose to be here.”

The young Englishman I spoke to early on returns to tell me about Molly, well known among the town’s homeless, who is suffering from infected fingers and the difficulties with getting her help. He and his girl friend both want Molly to stay with them in the squat “but she says she doesn’t feel safe there. She prefers to stay mostly in the gardens where we are”.

He says he’s been to the council for help “but they say we are not a priority. I told them I was sleeping on the streets and was told ‘that’s not my problem’”

Sam Hoy, the leader of Wisbech Town Council and a Fenland and Cambridgeshire councillor, is determined homelessness will become a priority issue.

I asked her to join me last Thursday together with Sharon Carter, a local estate agent who has spent many months bringing hot drinks and food to the homeless.

Cllr Hoy believes officials within the housing departments are unaware of the extent and scale of the problem and is concerned that the figures may not take count of those considered to have made themselves intentionally homeless. She believes more joined up thinking and a better understanding of the issues is needed so that help can be provided.

She’s fearful of being misunderstood and of being labelled someone who is “just sticking up for foreigners” if she publicly expresses her disquiet. She believes Fenland Council does have the power to tackle rogue landlords – where necessary- and that the resource is available to challenge some of the town’s inherent issues with homeless people.

But social media is a powerful tool and Cllr Hoy is reluctant to use it to argue against the more malevolent comments of late.

“Make one comment on line and you get attacked,” she says. “If I went on there however and said ‘get rid of all the foreigners and drunks’ then I’d be a hero”.

Of one thing you can be clear the issue of homelessness is not going to be solved easily and Cllr Hoy appreciates it will require a great deal of work to begin to tackle it. She wants the authorities to acquire a better understanding of the reasons why drinking has become and solve that and you partly solve the problem of homelessness.

What she wants above all else for now is a true picture of the extent of the problem and says when she inquired of officials and was told “there are only two homeless people in Wisbech” you can readily sense her anger.

Sharon says people would be wrong simply to assume the people we met are homeless because of drugs and drink.

“Whilst is partially true some also become alcoholics and addicts after becoming homeless – its what numbs them to the pain and to the cold,” she says.

The wet Wisbech night ended with a final question to the young Englishman I first encountered. I asked him why they all congregate in the church gardens

“We hang around because we’re all in the same boat,” he says. “We feel for each other. If Molly won’t sleep in the squat tonight then we’ll stay with her in the open. We can’t leave her”.