‘I thought I was going to die’ - the reality of sleeping rough in Kent

Julian getting his lunch from one of the volunteers at the drop-in centre
Julian getting his lunch from one of the volunteers at the drop-in centre -Credit:KentLive

Former and current rough sleepers in Canterbury have shared their experiences of living on the streets and have painted a picture of the scale of the issues they will face this winter. This comes weeks after ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman described rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice” when she defended her plans to restrict the use of tents by those sleeping on the streets.

Canterbury-based charity Catching Lives has seen an increase in people accessing their services over the past year from 157 individuals between September 1 and October 31, 2022 to 199 for the same period in 2023. The number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2022 in Kent was 80. This is up by 10 or 14.3 per cent from the previous year, according to official statistics.

KentLive went to speak to rough sleepers and homeless people attending the drop-in centre run by Catching Lives on Station Road East, which provides food, activities, mental health support, washing machines, PCs, showers, and a warm and safe space. Three of the people have shared their traumatic experiences with us.

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Carla Leggatt has revealed the various challenges homeless people face as she described her experience as “horrible”. The 43-year-old, who has now been housed for more than a year, said she saw her mental health deteriorating while living on the streets of Canterbury.

She told KentLive: “I’ve been coming to Catching Lives for about 10 years, I was homeless in Canterbury town, it was a horrible experience as you wake up with mental health issues - it was even worse when you wake up cold, tossing and turning because your hips hurt and you're just thinking about the next day.

“My demon was alcohol and I drank until I could not think about stuff, but it became a nightmare. I was waking up cold asking anybody for change and feeling ill, wanting to get the first drink down me so that I could stop shaking, feeling a bit warmer.”

'I thought at that point I was going to die'

Carla was sleeping rough for two years and claims she used to commit a crime in the winter to avoid having to sleep on the streets. She added: “I was in a tent near Wilko around the back.

“I used to hate waking up in the middle of the night wanting a toilet, so I had to get out in the cold and just go wherever, and it was hell. In the winter, I used to do a crime so that I could go to jail and that’s very sad. There are people that need help but some do not.”

There was one instance when she said she ended up in a coma. She added: “I was even in a tent when it was snowing and it was about 3am when an ambulance pulled me out and I woke up in intensive care and I remember a man saying ‘hi you have been in a coma for three days. You have pneumonia.’

“I was on a ventilator and had blood transfusions. I thought at that point I was going to die, I was in hospital for eight weeks and Catching Lives was brilliant, they would come if I needed anything.”

A group of rough sleepers and homeless people at the drop in centre
A group of rough sleepers and homeless people at the drop in centre -Credit:KentLive

She believes without the work Catching Lives is doing to support vulnerable people, more people would die or struggle with mental health disorders. She said: “I suffer with mental health and I come to Catching Lives everyday without fail because when I wake up I suffer from depression and if Catching Lives was not here there would be many deaths and a lot more mental health problems.

“I think Catching Lives needs more funding as there are so many of my friends that are vulnerable and are at a very young age. The youngest is an 18-year-old, who to me is a baby, and my other friend who is not an addict and is young it is very sad. There are going to be many deaths as young girls and boys sleep outside this winter.”

She added: “Catching Lives is my hero, they are constantly helping people who are sleeping on the streets giving them a warm place, breakfast and dinner.”

Julian has been homeless on and off for 20 years due to various reasons including relationships and drugs. He has been in rehab for alcohol and drug addictions.

Julian's drawing
Julian's drawing -Credit:KentLive

Now one of his main concerns living on the streets is his security. He said: “You are worried about your stuff, you’ve got to have your belongings with you, because that’s your home. If you leave it somewhere, and then you go to somewhere like this [Catching Lives], and when you go back it’s gone, the council takes it, or someone comes along and just vandalises it. I usually try to keep my belongings with me now.”

When asked what he would like the government to do to support them he said converting empty buildings into housing would help cope with the demand. He added: “All these buildings that closed down and they ain’t doing anything for years like Debenhams in Canterbury and a few other places. Why don’t they put people in there? There are lots of empty buildings and I’ve seen it all over the country.”

"It’s not a lifestyle choice, people cannot help that they’re homeless"

Another rough sleeper, who wished not to be named, said life on the streets was dangerous as she faced abuse. She told KentLive she had been sleeping rough after being arrested by police and had not been allowed to return to her family due to her bail conditions.

She said: “I’m a rough sleeper. I was arrested. I have been waiting five months for a house.”

About her way to protect herself on the streets, she said: “You have to be careful with the people you associate with. I have been abused on the streets by people. I stay with people, I’m never on my own. I don’t sleep on my own, I sleep with other rough sleepers, or in a public place with CCTV.

“It’s not a lifestyle choice, people cannot help that they’re homeless. I can’t help but the police told me I can’t go to my mum and dad due to my bail conditions, or else I’m going to jail, I’m not going to jail.

“There is hope for the future, it’s a difficult situation, but we’ll get there eventually. I suffer from bipolar disorder, it got a bit worse since being homeless because it’s a whole different lifestyle, but it makes you stronger and more streetwise as well.”

Emma McCrudden, outreach worker for Catching Lives, has been working closely with rough sleepers and homeless people for the past eight years. She believes loneliness is a huge problem many face.

She said: “Most support groups are centred around a thing such as drugs, or drink, mental health, physical issues, but there isn’t anything really just for loneliness. So for somebody who has been drinking for a long time, they’ve got themselves accommodation , there’s still nowhere else for them to go.

“People are finding things to do with their time and everything is so expensive now but they need to pay their bills, struggling with bus fares and petrol.”

The CEO of Catching Lives calls for more "supportive" policies to support vulnerable people
The CEO of Catching Lives calls for more "supportive" policies to support vulnerable people -Credit:KentLive

The charity's boss urges the government to create “supportive” policies that would help reduce poverty while increasing the capacity of services, mental and physical health services, housing and support for people sleeping rough.

Tasmin Maitland, chief executive for Catching Lives, said: “A lot of resilient people have often been through a lot and have survived a lot. And by coming here and being part of the service, we create a service together. So we're getting alongside people, we're helping them to identify what steps they might take next, and helping them figure out how to do that, but also very much a joint process.

“There are a lot of challenges, people going through really tough times. It can be really difficult to help them find solutions. There can be frustrations, trying to access services, and get housing and health care and all of that in place. People trying to survive on borrowed money, all of those things are an issue.”

The charity has launched its Winter Appeal and hopes to raise £50,000 to help people during this difficult time. To support them, visit its Justgiving page.

Canterbury CIty Council has secured extra funding to support rough sleepers this winter. A council spokesperson said: "There will be significant support available to look after rough sleepers in the district this winter, after we successfully secured an extra £50,000 in government funding to provide extra bed spaces in the district.

"Our rough sleeper team is out and about across the district to make sure we identify and offer support, in partnership with others, to all those sleeping out, and all those we work with will have a personal housing plan to try and bring their time on the streets to an end as quickly as possible. In some cases this can take months - maybe even years - to achieve due to the often highly complex needs these individuals have.

"This can include powerful and overwhelming challenges with mental health, drug and alcohol addiction and sometimes a combination of some or all of those. So while people may see some rough sleepers on the streets for a prolonged period of time, it does not necessarily mean nothing is happening to support them.

"It is far more likely that extensive work is taking place behind the scenes, but it's just not known about. Sadly, some individuals decline all the support that is on offer, and we must recognise that this is their right.

"When those who are living on the streets will be contending with severe weather, we activate our Severe Weather Emergency Protocol and redouble our efforts to provide support and use that contact to put as much support in place as we can as quickly as we can. Anyone who is concerned about a rough sleeper should alert us via StreetLink: https://thestreetlink.org.uk/."

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