Opening doors for the homeless in Chelmsford


One problem is that homelessness can be invisible.

There are no homeless people here

That's what we were told when we first started our work in Chelmsford back in the early 1990s. Sometimes we are still told the same thing today. You can hear the same statement being made in similar towns around the country.

One problem is that homelessness can be invisible. Yes, you can see homeless people selling the Big Issue in many places. But how many homeless people do you see apart from them? If you have walked along Chelmsford High Street more than about three times in your life, it is almost certain that you passed someone who was homeless. He or she probably looked no different from all the other people you passed. Could you pick the Big Issue sellers out in a crowd if they didn't have the magazine in their hands?

Another problem is that not all those who clai m to be homeless actually are. There is one character who turns up in Chelmsford every 18 months or so, sits in the High Street with his head down and a sign in front of him reading Homeless and hungry. Please help. and disappears after a few days. Whether he is homeless or not we don't know. What we do know is that every time we have approached him with offers of help he has given us a mouthful of abuse.

What do we mean by "homeless"?

The sociologists have been trying to come up with a definition for years, so we are certainly not going to try. Suffice it to say that we regard as homeless anyone who:

  • has no roof over his or her head;
  • has a roof over her or his head but with an imminent danger of losing it;
  • is sleeping on friends' floors or sofas (a situation known as "sofa surfing");
  • has a roof over his or her head but with no homelike quality to it (such as someone placed in bed and breakfast accommodation); or
  • would be in one of those situations were she or he not being accommodated by ourselves or another charity supporting homeless people.

People who have been homeless often find it difficult to cope once they do find themselves in accommodation of their own, so we continue to help them where we can.

What are homeless people like?

People with more settled lifestyles can have a very jaundiced view of those who are homeless. Most charities working with homeless people will tell you that Homeless people are people just like us. Homeless people are people just like us in that they come from a range of backgrounds and vary from tall to short, from kind-hearted to mean-spirited, from illiterate to highly educated, from young to old. Inevitably some will be people just like you and some will be very different.

Those we have helped in recent years have included a Cambridge PhD, a dentist, a chartered accountant and the former owner of what was once a large thriving business. They have also included cooks, lorry drivers and construction workers. The youngest was 18. (We are not permitted to help people younger than that as they are technically still children.) The oldest was 72. Most were male; some were female. Most were single but a few came to us as couples. Some became couples while they were with us!

The only thing they have in common is their homelessness.

Yet homelessness is not a condition. It is a symptom of other underlying problems.

Why are they homeless?

Well, there is one way in which homeless people are not "people just like us". Most of us, if we suddenly found ourselves without a roof over our heads, would immediately be helped by friends or relatives. We might even be overwhelmed by the offers of help we received.

For someone to be homeless it means that he or she either has no friends or relatives who are in a position to help or has exhausted the patience of everyone who might otherwise be prepared to lend a hand.

This could be because the person concerned has no known relatives or close friends; perhaps he or she grew up in care. The person's relationships with friends and relatives could have broken down for various reasons. Friends and relatives may have become fed up with the person's inability to cope or to find a way out of her or his situation.

Looked at nationally, there are some common themes:

Although most tend to be less well educated than the general population and to seek unskilled jobs, homeless people come from a wide spectrum of the community.

Homeless people are predominantly single. Breakdowns of relationships and support networks contribute to vulnerability to homelessness.

Homeless people have financial problems. They may find it difficult to deal with officials and obtain the benefits to which they are entitled. Some can be caught in the "poverty trap".

Homelessness increases vulnerability to health problems, both mental and physical, but makes it more difficult for people to obtain the medical treatment they need.

There are a number of "vicious circles" associated with homelessness. Excessive drinking can lead to homelessness and homeless people may use excessive drinking as a coping mechanism. Financial problems can lead to homelessness and homelessness can make it difficult for people to obtain benefits or a job.

Relationship breakdown may trigger homelessness and homelessness increases the difficulties of maintaining relationships. Mental illness can cause homelessness and homelessness can give rise to mental disorders. As well as worsening the positions of homeless people, these vicious circles can make it difficult to separate cause and effect.

What is it like to be homeless?

One quip has it that no child ever says "I want to be homeless when I grow up." It is not a lifestyle that anyone would choose; the "gentlemen of the road" familiar to previous generations are rarely seen now.

It is easy to imagine the physical hardships of "sleeping rough": the cold, the discomfort of sleeping on grass or concrete with just one thin blanket underneath you and another on top to protect you from the elements, the worries about finding clean food and water, the concerns about keeping yourself clean and healthy.

What may not come so readily to mind are the other hardships, such as the vicious circles we mentioned above. It has been estimated that an otherwise normal person forced to sleep rough will become mentally ill within a matter of weeks; even just three weeks can be enough in some cases. In many instances there is also, of course, a loss of dignity and self-respect. Our views about the sort of people we are can be left in tatters when we find ourselves on the streets.

Unfortunately it is not just natural hazards that are a danger to those sleeping rough. Homeless people are vulnerable and can be seen as fair game by the more boisterous members of society. We have had to call ambulances for homeless people who have been attacked. One of our staff members was once called out at 8 pm on Christmas Eve to take to hospital a client who was suffering from concussion after being mugged.

There is one very significant compensation, though. Homeless people are usually very supportive of one another. Someone newly homeless will quickly be spotted and helped by others. Here in Chelmsford the help often takes the form of an introduction to CHESS. The homeless person can soon find that he or she has acquired a new "family".

How big is the need?

It is notoriously difficult to establish how many are homeless. Because of their vulnerability, homeless people don't particularly want to be identified by the rest of us. Even if you could count those living on the streets, there would still be the ones you couldn't see, such as those sleeping on friends' floors and sofas.

Nevertheless estimates have been made. In the mid 1990s one EU-wide study estimated that on an average day 283,000 people in the UK were homeless and that 460,000 would experience homelessness in the course of a year. The numbers are staggering. It is unlikely that they have gone down since then.

How many homeless people are there in Chelmsford and the surrounding areas of Essex?

We don't know as we have no way of finding out how many are sleeping on friends' floors and sofas or how many deliberately avoid coming into town. At any one time we expect to have 26  homeless people housed in our various buildings (upto 34 in the winter months) and to be in contact with 15-20 others. We also know that we receive between 20 and 40 new requests for emergency accommodation each month.