Cambridge homeless levels reach crisis point

Jenny Buckley & Gwen Jing - News Editors 17 January 2013

A police dossier has revealed that rough sleepers are moving lids off tombs at Mill Road Cemetery to sleep inside them. Against the background of a five-fold increase in homelessness in Cambridge last year with further cuts to welfare spending, and a parallel surge in the number of attacks on homeless people, rough sleepers are finding refuge in the graveyard, feeling that it is unsafe to sleep on the streets.

One homeless man in Cambridge, Udo, told The Cambridge Student that he is aware of individuals in the city’s homeless community who use the cemetery, mostly for drinking and smoking in daylight, but also some for overnighting: “I know of a few people who used the cemetery as an emergency sleeping quarter”, stating that they are mostly females in search for a safe place to sleep.

Udo explained: “The tombs are used by members of the rough sleeper community because it is not a visible sign like a tent and it hides the body from being spotted by various species of the night.”

“So far the tombs have been a safe sleeping place for at least two persons I do know. It is a safety aspect and it is how people try to find a reasonable place to sleep. It covers you from the wind and partially from any downpour as well.”

“As always the main problem is not enough safe sleeping places in the city”, he concludes.

This is a viewed shared by Kirsten Lavers, the Creative Director at FLACK magazine, a publication written and produced by homeless people: “There is a long history of cemeteries being a refuge for the marginalised.”

Mill Road Cemetery revealed to TCS that, although there are rough sleepers in the cemetery, their alleged sleeping within tombs is “surprising”. “Moving the masonry would be very difficult”.

“When repairs are carried out, special lifting equipment is required”, claimed Reverend Margaret Widdess, Secretary of the Parochial Burial Grounds Management Committee which manages Mill Road Cemetery.

Nonetheless, Cambridge’s homeless community is rising year by year. At the Council’s last street count in November, 33 people were seen to be sleeping rough on the streets. At the same time in 2011, there were only six.

However, this count is just the “tip of the iceberg”, Ms Lavers suggested. The count only picks up those sleeping in doorways and does not include those “tucking themselves away” in places such as the cemetery.

Centres such as Wintercomfort, which offers free-cooked breakfasts to those sleeping rough, or Jimmy’s, which provides limited spaces for emergency accommodation for the homeless, should have a more accurate idea of the numbers who are homeless on the streets of Cambridge, albeit still an underestimate because they only see those who present themselves at the centre in the mornings.

Even with homeless shelters’ efforts to address this problem, Udo suggested that they are not wholly effective: “Even when Jimmy’s and the 222’s have spare rooms, some people will always prefer to sleep on their own account – people like me who don’t want to be put into a prefabricated box that brush you with the street drunk and loud mouth ASBO carrier when using places like Jimmy’s.

“All the provided places have one major disadvantage of you being forced to show up at a certain time and be extremely limited in what you can and can’t do.

“My view on this is that I can’t use them, since I’m a grown-up, responsible adult that don’t need to hear that I have to go to bed at 19:00 because it is sleeping time. If I need to sleep I will find a place on my own.”

The stigma of violence and antisocial behaviour which is stereotypically associated with homelessness is a major concern. Contrary to this stereotype, Ms Lavers told TCS that homeless people are statistically 13 times more likely to be the victims of violence than those who do not live on the streets.

“People think that the homeless people are violent – but the reality is the reverse. They have to tuck themselves away.”

Ms Lavers believes perceptions of the homeless are unequivocally negative: “Most people associate the homeless with D-words,” she said, but FLACK challenges this stereotype, stressing that “not all are drunk, drug addicts with dirty finger nails and dogs.”

“There is a very negative stereotype in relation to drink and alcohol. 70% actually start drinking after turning homeless. Some do suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction, but so do people who lead very mainstream lives. The difference is that they have the privilege of privacy.”

Places with undergrowth provide some of this privacy for members of the homeless community, offering a space in which they can be sheltered not only from the violence of the public, but also from the cold weather.

Meanwhile, shelters across the city such as the cemetery are a source of refuge for those with nowhere else to go. “They are life savers, not somewhere to make your home,” said Ms Lavers. “They are the first step to recovery.”

Jenny Buckley & Gwen Jing – News Editors