Conversations with Cambridge's homeless population

Image credit: Marc Brüneke

On Wednesday 7 October, thousands of students were streaming through Kelsey Kerridge Hall for the second day of CUSU’s Freshers’ Fair, signing up to hundreds of societies while being set upon by takeaway companies with free food.

Meanwhile, metres away, around eight to ten homeless men were resting near the back entrance of the hall. Their ages ranged between late 20s and 40s.

One man, in a ragged Chelsea shirt, had just gone to get some of the free pizza on offer to the students. Most of them were drinking strong cider, although they were friendly and sober when I approached them.

After telling them I was a student journalist, one jokingly said he was “saying nothing. You ain’t getting nothing out of me.” We all laughed, despite the tension: here was a middle-class Cambridge student clearly looking for what some have dismissed as “poverty porn” for an article.

Still, they were willing to talk. I asked them whether the abundant food was accessible to them. They told me that they were free to eat the pizzas but normally leftovers were unavailable. “They used to do it ... Boots used to give out sandwiches, they were taken to hostels. Now, for some unknown reason, they don’t.”

The man in the Chelsea shirt also complained about Jimmy’s, the wellknown shelter, saying they forbade taking food out of the shelter to others who are not fortunate enough to have a roof over their head that night: “I mean, it’s fucking ridiculous, I have mates who are rough sleepers.” Nearby, a sign bearing the logo of the Cambridge city council forbids “rough sleepers” in the car park. When asked for comment, Jimmy’s Night Shelter told The Cambridge Student that the policy “is about resources” and “we wouldn’t want to set an expectation that there would always be food available, when in reality this wouldn’t always be the case.”

Later on, a man who has just arrived starts talking to me. He tells me that “youngsters attack us sometimes,” while another claims “I’ve been spat at,” by people around the age of 21 coming out of pubs. Asked whether that kind of interaction was normal, there was disagreement. Chelsea shirt claimed “aggression outweighs the niceness”, but the newcomer contradicts him: “I wouldn’t say that ... the majority of people are OK. But these really bad situations, like spitting, stick in your mind ... stay with you.”

Later on that evening, I’m approached on Trinity Lane by another homeless man asking for money. He was keen to claim that he “doesn’t normally do this.” I asked him whether he had a place to stay that night, such as Jimmy’s or Cyrenians. “I’m staying in a car park with my girlfriend.”

He said he generally doesn’t get into the shelters because there are few provisions for couples, and that he’s been on the council waiting list for a while. Jimmy’s told TCS that they are a service for single people, although they “frequently have couples staying”. Normally, the man goes to Wintercomfort charity for “food and a shower”. However, he claims “the kitchen has been closed all week.” When asked why: “No idea mate!”

However, this particular claim at least does not appear to be true. Firstly, a Big Issue seller known to me didn’t know anything about a closure when asked. Moreover, when TCS reached out to Wintercomfort, they told us they had been “open as usual … and our kitchen has been open serving food as normal. The only reason someone would not be able to access our service would be because they either chose not to or were currently subject to a ban from our service due to their behaviour. We try and minimise the use of exclusions from the service but sometimes this is unavoidable.”

The next day, I see him again and ask him about his story. His only relative is a sister who is married with two kids and lives in London; he never sees her.

“To be honest, I shouldn’t really be walking,” he continues. “I’m very ill. I have a hernia … and my belly button is really swollen. Once I just started spewing up blood while walking around here. Just spewing up. I eventually passed out.” He bid me a good evening and hobbled off to his unsheltered bed in a corner of an unspecified car park.

On the eve of World Homeless Day, I chatted to a woman, sitting near Sainsbury’s, reading The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud. One of my 21st birthday presents last month was The Ring of Solomon. I first enthusiastically talked to her about Stroud’s memorable characters.

We get on to her circumstances. “I’ve been homeless for 18 months … I used to live in a housing association.” She claimed her dog, who this whole time has been lovingly licking my hand, made it difficult for her to get a roof over her head.

I started talking about why I was doing this, starting with the Freshers’ Fair. When I mention the pizzas, she laughs, gestures to a pile next to her and says that “a guy has just given me two pizzas. Maybe they’re from that thing you’re talking about.” I laugh and say maybe, I doubt it.

I said goodnight to her, ruffled the dog one more time, and went home to my bed.

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