For three years, I slept rough on the streets of Manchester.
Now, as any Mancunian will tell you, Manchester is the greatest city on earth. But sleeping rough is fraught with dangers wherever you happen to be. The experience was incredibly hard for me, but it also shaped my desire to prevent others having to go through what I did.
The first thing you notice when you live in Manchester is that it’s a beautiful city with a great atmosphere. But there are two sides to every coin – if you had to sleep on the streets, you would see some of the grittier stuff, just as I did. Most people are kind to you and understand that you have nowhere to live, but I know first-hand some people can be needlessly cruel to homeless people.
Sleeping outside in summer isn’t as hard as when the winter comes. When winter sets in, your survival tactics have to change. When the cold seeps into your bones, it’s not a joke or a game. People die. One day, I woke up and by the time I’d gone to get my breakfast, I heard that two guys had died. One was in his early 30s and one in his early 40s. They both died from the cold.
Getting through winter, night by night, week by week, waking up to the cold is soul destroying.
Trying to change your clothes and freshen up is a struggle when the day centres close over the weekend and even getting support from the council feels impossible.
“This pandemic is far from over. That’s obvious every time you switch on the news.”
Every day you’re banging your head up against brick walls, trying to get help. I remember being told I was a “young man with no mental health issue or drug dependencies. So, if you’re strong enough to walk to a park bench that’s what you should do”. This is hard enough to hear, during a global pandemic when you can’t even follow basic health advice, it’s brutal.
The three years I spent homeless were a long time to be on the street. One reason I was stuck there for so long was because councils don’t get enough support from the government. That’s why they tell people like me we’re not a priority. People are out on the streets; losing their lives off the back of decisions made hundreds of miles away in Westminster.
The government needs to make it clear to councils that no one at risk of sleeping rough should be turned away now, or in the months ahead. They must urgently publish guidance for councils confirming that everyone who needs access to emergency accommodation, should get it. This pandemic is far from over. That’s obvious every time you switch on the news.
For me, there was a way out. Shelter helped me to get somewhere safe to live and set about rebuilding my life. I got the chance to feel safe. I got to decorate my flat. I even got a cat. Now I want other people to have the same chance.
When lockdown began, it was good to see street homeless people being housed in hotels and emergency accommodation. But when I walk down the street, I see more people out there. When I stop to talk to them, they tell me how they’ve fallen through holes in the government’s safety net.
“When I walk down the street, I see more people out there. And when I stop to talk to them, they tell me how they’ve fallen through holes in the government’s safety net.”
I’m determined to do all I can to help. That’s why I have started a campaign with Shelter to make sure that no one sleeps rough during this crisis, and into the future. And that’s why we are asking the new homelessness minister, Kelly Tolhurst, to meet with us and put together an action plan now.
This couldn’t be more urgent. Winter is coming. There could be a second wave of both the virus and homelessness, this would be a disaster on our streets. We cannot let this happen.
I read that Prince William visited a group of people at a homelessness centre in Peterborough and said: “You’ll never have a better chance nationally to crack homelessness.” I believe he is right, and so do a growing group of organisations that have rallied around my campaign. Churches, foodbanks, football clubs, schools, congregations, credit unions, homeless charities and concerned citizens – all committed to urging the government to end rough sleeping for good.
The government showed us all during lockdown that it wants to, and can, keep everyone safe. It just needs to be brave and work towards making sure it stays that way.
If it does, this government will be remembered as the government that finally ended rough sleeping for good. If not, it will just be another bunch of politicians making promises they fail to keep. During this outbreak, and for the sake of society, they must be bold and choose the first option.
Rhys Otoo is a Shelter campaigner from Manchester