Drug abuse and addiction. Bereavement. The responsibility of caring for a disabled parent. A nervous breakdown. Prison. Eventually, begging on the street.
Gerry O’Brien’s life story makes for a sobering read. But that’s precisely the reason he’s such a good outreach worker for those living on the streets today.
Now 51 and living in Islington, north London, he’s been clean for two and a half years and turned his life around.
He uses his experience to build trust with homeless people as part of Street Buddies – a programme staffed by volunteers that is successfully helping rough sleepers break the cycle of homelessness and get into stable accommodation.
The latest rough sleeping figures, published on Thursday morning by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, show 4,266 people were counted on the streets over a single night last autumn. But that is likely to be a significant underestimate: the data collection method means anyone who happens not to be on the street on one particular evening won’t be included. Nor will people sleeping on buses, couch surfing, staying with friends or family or bedding down at hostels.
The most recent number is down on last year’s 4,677, but still up by 141% compared with 2010.
Westminster, home of Parliament, was again the worst offender for rough sleeping: it has seen a 9% year-on-year rise and the council recorded 333 people sleeping rough in the 2019 count.
The annual rough sleeping snapshot provides information about the estimated number of people sleeping rough on a single night during the autumn.
These statistics provide a way of estimating the number of people sleeping rough across England on a single night and assessing change over time.
Local authorities across England take an annual autumn snapshot of rough sleeping using either a count-based estimate of visible rough sleeping, an evidence-based estimate meeting with local partners, or an evidence-based estimate meeting including a spotlight count in specific areas.
The snapshot is collated by outreach workers, local charities and community groups and is independently verified by Homeless Link.
Gerry told HuffPost UK: “I see the vicious cycle of homelessness. Drug abuse is just an escape – a way to escape other issues.
“I think a lot of it is down to a feeling of lost hope. There are treatment centres out there, but I think people need more one-to-one support and help giving them a direction in life.”
The government last night announced £236m to help get rough sleepers into homes – about £720,000 per local housing authority in the UK. In Islington, where Gerry now lives, that might buy a single two-bed flat. The waiting list for a home in Islington is 14,000.
Gerry’s story suggests more support than that is needed to help the most vulnerable people.
He began smoking at 12, but progressed to solvent abuse at secondary school. Later, he moved on again to cannabis and various pills.
At 27, five years after becoming a dad, he had a nervous breakdown.
“In my mid-20s, my mum had a big stroke which left her paralysed,” he said. “When my dad died, when I was 29, I became a full-time carer for my mum and I also had my daughter at weekends.”
It was during this time that he turned to hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.
“When I was in my early 20s, I was buying and selling stuff and cutting corners,” he said. “I only began stealing when I became a crackhead. I stole for my addiction and became a petty thief.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong and I’m ashamed of what I did. I ended up in prison twice for three months at a time. I put myself there by telling the court to put me away if they wanted, as I knew I was killing myself.
“I needed those stints in prison to get myself clean.”
Although he was drug-free while in prison, Gerry said he would soon slip back into taking drugs once he was released.
“I ended up street begging for six months after a relapse,” he told HuffPost UK. “That was a real eye-opener and gave me a completely different perspective.
“There are a lot more good people out there than I ever expected. People who stopped to say hello and gave you their time and money.
“But it was horrible at times, too. I have witnessed some awful stuff from the gutter and was sometimes spat at by people while sitting on my sleeping bag begging.”
He is now giving back to help others by helping rough sleepers in London as a volunteer for Street Buddies, a programme created by Riverside, the largest provider of supported housing in Britain. The project has been extended for a further three years.
Over the past five years, the number of new rough sleepers in the capital has increased by 8% to more than 8,000 people.
But the number of entrenched rough sleepers in London – those on the street for more than two years – has risen by far more: almost a third, to 2,080 people.
When the outreach teams in Westminster cannot successfully connect with a rough sleeper, they turn to Street Buddies.
Last year, Street Buddies helped to get 30% of the entrenched rough sleepers they engaged with off the streets.
Riverside’s Street Buddies empowers volunteers with first-hand experience of homelessness or substance misuse to help entrenched rough sleepers off the streets and to rebuild their lives. The scheme has now received funding to expand to Kensington and Chelsea.
Street Buddies only work with the most difficult and complex of cases – long-term rough sleepers who don’t otherwise engage with services.
They aim to help rough sleepers get better access to support services, improving their chances of an independent, sustainable and healthy life.
In turn, the Street Buddies gain increased confidence and skills through volunteering, which – it is hoped – will boost their employment opportunities.
Gerry said: “We are like poachers turned gamekeepers.
“Having an understanding of how people are feeling and thinking is really important and helps us build up trust with people.
“When we first see our clients, they don’t want to connect with people again – it’s how many of us have felt in the past.
“We don’t make judgements. We take every person as they come. We’re here to be genuine. It’s rewarding but we’re dealing with very vulnerable people and it’s important that we look after them.”
Gerry told HuffPost UK rough sleepers need shelter regardless of substance abuse issues. “There needs to be somewhere for them to go,” he said.
“It is hard to deal with people who are intoxicated. But they need somewhere they can crash out and be safe. Once they have shelter, it is a good time to reach out to them and help them.”