Dennis Rogers isn’t sure he’d be alive now if he had his time living on the streets as an alcoholic again. “I don’t think I would have got better if I was homeless now. The situation is getting to be the worst I’ve seen.”
Rogers, who is 59, should know. He has a unique insight into homelessness and how it’s changed over his lifetime. He spent 10 years mostly living rough before he managed to get a place in rehab for a year for his alcoholism, which had become so bad that he needed to drink four cans of super strength lager every morning before he could stand up.
He was lucky that he got the help he needed at the right time – even if it took getting stabbed in the lung while drunk to get him into hospital, which then gave his key worker enough time to secure him a place in a rehabilitation unit. He believes that same level of help isn’t available now. “I got to the stage where I was in a dark tunnel and couldn’t see any light. I needed my hand holding for a long time,” remembers Rogers. “I had loads of different workers that helped me. Help is available now but it’s not the same because a lot of organisations have been closed down.”
Once sober, he became a volunteer outreach worker for Thames Reach, a homelessness charity. Sixteen years later, he still hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol and now works as a caseworker for Groundswell, a charity which uses a peer advocacy approach to help homeless people address their health problems. He was awarded an MBE for his work this year.
Homeless people’s health is a serious issue. The number of people who have died on the streets and in temporary accommodation in England and Wales have risen every year since 2014, increasing from 475 to 597 in 2017, according to government figures. The average age of a homeless person at death was 44 among men and 42 for women. The largest numbers of deaths were in London, where Rogers lives and works, and the north-west of England.
Rogers has noticed a surge in the number of people becoming homeless. “There’s a lot more, especially with [the introduction of] universal credit and cutbacks. I know people who were homeless years ago, got into a flat and managed to keep it by having regular visits from key workers. Now they are back on the streets.”
A lot of the people he deals with are knocking on death’s door. He admits he feels powerless sometimes and has lost clients, many to alcoholism. They serve as a constant reminder of what his life could have been like. “I see the damage that’s done every day. I saw a woman this morning – if she carries on drinking, she will die.”
Living on the streets is, and has always been, scary, according to Rogers. He remembers when he first started sleeping rough after his relationship broke down. “I had £80 in my pocket. I couldn’t get a room and I was also an alcoholic. I suffered big time. I was too embarrassed to [ask for help]. Begging was embarrassing; sitting down in a shop doorway and asking someone for money is not easy at all.”
There are many aspects of his old life that he won’t talk about. A sense of shame and resignation pervades as he describes some of the treatment he received from members of the public. “I’ve been peed on, people have thrown rubbish on me, pulled away my sleeping bag, beat me up. That’s mild compared to what’s happened to other homeless people … You get people saying ‘get a job’. What they don’t realise is a lot of homeless people have had good lives and then have got an addiction.”
He has come across former doctors, army officers and actors, among others. Some people fall into homelessness because of a personal tragedy – he cites one man whose entire family died in a car crash that was his fault. He says loneliness is a recurring factor. “Loneliness is quite powerful,” he says. “It will end up with you going on the street, drinking and losing your flat. I’ve had a client who killed himself.”
So what keeps him going? Compassion, he says. That and the feeling when he gets people off the streets, such as the heroin addict who got clean and ended up volunteering at Groundswell, or the man sleeping rough with TB who now works in a hospital. “I’ve had a few clients come through and that’s the biggest buzz you can come across.”
He adds one final thought: “Homeless people are people. There’s got to be more help out there for them.”