Out on the streets

THE daily soup kitchen at St Mary's Church is an important part of Simon Leach's day. The 28-year-old, who sleeps rough in a car park in Southampton, has been coming to get free food, provided by the Society of St James, on a daily basis since he came to Southampton three months ago.

While some rough sleepers who had gathered at the church to get some warm food and catch up with their friends said that sleeping rough was a matter of choice for them, Simon was clear that this way of life was something he wanted to escape from.

"Do I want to get off the streets? Hell, yes," he said.

"I want to get into a decent job, live in decent accommodation and live a normal life. Sleeping on the streets, you just don't know what you are going to be doing from day to day - you have to put a lot of effort into trying to stay safe."

Simon first began sleeping rough at the age of 17. He stayed with friends for a while but they fell out and he found himself sleeping rough again.

Articulate and intelligent, Simon didn't fit the stereotyped image many people have of the homeless - and he wasn't the only one.

The people who were gathered for the soup run were a diverse group with a range of reasons for becoming homeless.

For some of them, like Stu, who wasn't sure of his age but thought he was around 46, sleeping rough, and the nomadic life that often accompanies it, was a way of life that he had no desire to escape from.

"This is a way of life for me," he said, "I can't get out of it."

Michael, 41, said sleeping rough was, to some extent, a matter of choice. Michael has been battling with alcohol problems and said that he has found in the past that when he has gone into hostel accommodation - the first step on the ladder away from homelessness - he has gone backwards in terms of his motivation and alcoholism.

"I've been homeless on and off since I left school," he said.

"Time goes so quickly that it becomes a way of life and then it's hard to get back into the system. If you want to get back into the system you have to start at the bottom and work your way up and that can be hard, mentally. And going into hostel accommodation you can lose your motivation and become lazy and start drinking."

Michael's friend Kelly, 37, also said she preferred sleeping rough to hostel accommodation.

She became homeless when she fell out with her family and says that she's happy with her lifestyle at the moment but is planning on getting back onto the system soon.

Another entrenched rough sleeper is 39-year-old Michelle. She has been sleeping rough most nights for the last seven to eight years and has come to depend on the soup kitchen, which she visits daily.

"If it wasn't for the soup kitchen, where would we go?" she said.

Michelle also became homeless after falling out with her family but is hoping to return to them soon.

It was with the aim of helping the whole range of homeless people that the Rotary Club of Southampton joined forces with city-based homelessness charity the Society of St James, to produce "survival packs" for the homeless.

These backpacks, which were distributed at the soup kitchen, contained items which were aimed to help take care of some of the immediate welfare needs of the homeless as well helping to get them off the streets in the long term.

They included a first aid kit, toothbrush and flask as well as items such as a diary and alarm clock to help people make sure they attend appointments such as job interviews.

All the homeless people I spoke to thought the packs were a very good idea and said it was the first aid kit that they thought they would find particularly useful.

Bob Jackson, president of Southampton Rotary Club, came up with the idea of the packs after meeting a young homeless person and talking to him about his situation.

"I came across a young lad of about 15 sitting in a car park at night with his head in his hands and he asked if I had any money," he explains.

"I asked him why he wanted it and he said that he was homeless. I quizzed him about what he wanted the money for and he said that he was on drugs. I didn't give him any money but I wanted to do something so I looked up local homeless charities and contacted the Society of St James.

"I pledged that during my year as president of the club I would link up with them and help."

Bob organised a sleep-out to help raise funds for the Society but wanted to do more. He came up with the idea of the packs as a version of the emergency packs that are sent overseas to help people cope with disasters such as flooding.

"They're not a way of resolving homelessness but they're a first step. They're a way of showing we care and of helping to make life more bearable."

He added that the response of the people who were given the packs had been brilliant and that if the feedback from the Society of St James was positive more packs would be produced.

Holly Barnes-Thomas, of the Society of St James, said the charity was delighted to be receiving help from Southampton Rotary Club.

She said the backpacks could be a lifesaver for rough sleepers and that they would hopefully help people to access the help they need to get off the streets.

Typically, there are seven people sleeping rough on the streets of Southampton on any given night, although there are far more people who are classed as homeless - staying in hostels, squats and other temporary accommodation. In March, there were more than 230 homeless or at risk of homelessness people in Southampton with more than 500 more housed by homelessness agencies.

Holly says that while it can be tempting to give money to people who are begging on the streets, generally it's best to give your money to a local homeless charity or, if you want to help the individual, buy them a sandwich and a drink rather than giving them money.

The Society of St James provides a whole range of services for the homeless, from the most basic form of support in the form of the soup kitchen through hostel accommodation to helping people deal with the problems such as alcoholism which may have led to their becoming homeless and getting them back on the housing and job ladder.

Simon Leach says he is making the most of the facilities available to get himself off the streets and back into "normal" life, but it can be tough.

"Jobs aren't that readily available for rough sleepers," he says.

"You have gaps in your employment and employers don't always want to hear that that's because you've been on the streets."

source: The Daily Echo, U.K