Monday, 30 May 2011

"This is Brighton Station. Welcome to Brighton Station. There is no local connection. This is the End of the Line..."

A couple sit hunched over with their dog under the arches of Brighton station.  Kristian, who sits with his girlfriend, complains of what he suspects is urine that has run from the top of Trafalgar Street down the pavement in a stream to hit his blanket.  He hopes it is beer, but he isn’t so sure.  This isn’t Calcutta. This is Brighton.  Welcome to Brighton & Hove: the ‘city by the sea’.  His girlfriend is tired, her head covered by a dirty sleeping bag.  Kristian is alert, if tired, and is keen to talk about what is going on in his life at the moment.  He says it is nice to be able to “off-load” some of what he experiences in Brighton.

At 33, he has seen a lot of life and more the dark side of life than we would ever wish to see.  We did not speak for too long, but for enough time to get a sense of the desperation of life on the streets of Brighton, a life dispossessed, largely abandoned to the elements by the local authoritiy and left voiceless and powerless.

The Local Connection

For what feels like the hundredth time, I am told about the injustice of Brighton & Hove City Council’s ‘local connection policy’.  Kristian explains to me the absurdity of the couple’s situation with the Council.

“We arrived here seven years ago.  We have been on the streets in Brighton since then.  When we got here, we went to the Council and were told that because we were not from the area, that we would only be considered for housing if we had a ‘local connection’.  This has been the Council’s position for seven years. I mean, how long do you have to be living in a town before you are considered ‘local’ or to have a connection with the town?”

In Brighton, if you don’t have a ‘local connection’ then you are out on a limb.  The Council’s policy of only coming to the assistance of ‘residents’ who have family in the area leaves many of the homeless stranded, without access to shelter.  This policy does not just mean that you won’t be considered for the Council housing waiting list.  It also means that you will find it nearly impossible to gain access to a hostel in Brighton or Hove, since all referrals to hostels in Brighton are made through the Council.  This is a situation presided over by the Council, not a situation that has happened because of the policies of hostels themselves.

Of course, the quality of local hostels, in terms of care and provision is highly questionable.  Many of the hostels that do exist are run as private businesses that make great profit out of housing benefit, but give very little to the ‘clients’ in terms of accommodation. Still, while this itself is a scandal, it is one to be treated separately and for many on the street, any room is better than the squalor of the streets of Brighton.

The reality for Kristian is that the Council have relinquished any duty of care to the couple.  They are left to roam the streets, to sleep there, in all weather conditions, in every season.  It always astonishes me how the homeless cope in winter.

Kristian’s response is stoical, spoken by a man so accustomed to sleeping outside in winter that it is now routine.  “We have three sleeping bags.  We just survive with those.”  

Dignity

Kristian explains that streetlife is about more than being without a house.  It is not just shelter that you lose, but active participation in society, or even, membership of that society.

“The worst thing is the way we are seen by others.  People look at us, sitting here with a dog and just assume we are ‘scumbags’ or something.  I think people generally assume we are on drugs.  We’re not.  I managed to come off my drug habit.  I have a few beers but that is it.  People look at us and I think have a great deal of prejudice.  We carry a stigma.  On a Saturday night, drunk locals or visitors will come and sit with us but they’re not really interested in us.  The reality of being homeless in Brghton is that you are largely ignored and treated as if you are dirt.  We aren’t treated as people.  We aren’t treated with dignity.  Even when some people give us money, they’ll often kind of drop it at our feet.  It would be nice if people gave it to us in the hand as you would for anyone else.”

Brighton’s Heart of Darkness

Graham Greene, in his classic novel, ‘Brighton Rock’ portrayed a vision of Brighton that was dark at its heart, a sinister town that was brutal and violent, a place of warfare and criminality, gangsterism and murder.  The image that most people receive of Brighton nowadays is somewhat different.  The slum clearances of the 1930s, 40s and 50s led to a widescale ‘gentrification’ of inner Brighton, while the poor who had lived in the city were displaced and relocated to Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb.  Brighton and Hove is now a city in which money speaks, but people without it are voiceless and some, homeless.

Despite attempts to turn Brighton into a place of wealth, leisure, tourism and the ‘gay capital’ of the United Kingdom, Brighton is also the ‘drug-related death’ capital of the whole country.  This isn’t just something that affects the homeless, although it is they who are most penalised and they who suffer most casualties in the culture of death for which Brighton is famed.  Brighton’s hedonistic culture comes at a cost of human lives, tragically cut short by drug-fuelled suicide, overdoses and crime.

The recent senseless, brutal and shocking murder of a local Brighton man is still fresh in Kristian’s mind.  Detectives working for Sussex Police described the wounds and injuries of the man in the fatal attack as the worst they had ever seen.  Kristian and his girlfriend knew the victim well and were good friends with him.  They are still grieving over the loss of their friend.  The motive of the murder is still mysterious and the case is yet to go to trial.

“I saw his mutilated, bloody body laying on his bed. His skin had been ripped from his face, a deep, huge gash in his head, his body totally unrecognisable from the man I had known.  By then he’d already lost 80% of his blood.  I will never forget that image.  It will always haunt me, when I am awake and when I sleep and when I sleep, I cannot sleep well.  Apparently, Police received counselling because of what they saw.  We have received none and he was our friend.”

Kristian expresses his frustration with the system in Brighton that condemns many homeless to destitution.

“When we went to the Council, after that, again seeking assistance with housing, the lady behind the counter, on hearing of the death of our friend said, ‘Oh, that’s unfortunate’. Unfortunate? Unfortunate is having your foot ran over by a car.  Losing one of your best friends isn’t unfortunate. It is terrible! Devastating!”
The couple have all but given up hope that the Council will recognise their plight and assist them.

 “They don’t want to help us and that is that.  They have this local connection policy and they are sticking to it, in our case, at any rate.”

Inconsistencies in the Local Connection Policy

I have met many of the homeless of Brighton and noticed that while the Council operate a stringent local connection policy, it appears to be open to interpretation in different cases.  I know one man who arrived from another city.  For months he slept rough by the Babylon Lounge in Hove.  For months he was told that he had no local connection and so therefore could not be helped.  Then, to my surprise, he told me that he had been housed.  He, too, was surprised by the Council’s sudden decision to make an exception of him.  I was happy for him, of course, but wondered exactly what criteria the Council have for coming to the assistance of the homeless in Brighton.  Not too long after he was housed in a hostel in Brighton, he was informed that he had been found a flat where he could live independently.  He struggles by and is poor, but it appears that the local connection policy suddenly was dropped for this individual.

Few would doubt that the Council have a huge task on their hands in responding to the homeless population of Brighton and that the policy which the Council operate is a response to Brighton’s popularity as a destination for those who have fallen out of mainstream society and have become street homeless or who wish to live here to gain accommodation.

However, it is also true that many people are welcomed to Brighton with open arms.  The rich and the wealthy, for example, have no problems gaining property.  Indeed, some use Brighton as a second home.  There is also a great deal of vacant property in Sussex, The Argus newspaper reporting last year that some 21,000 properties remain unoccupied across the county. The Council also employ a number of people to be ‘rough sleepers workers’ and have a ‘Rough Sleepers Street Services and Relocation Team (RSSRT) which must cost a considerable amount of money.

Meanwhile, there is urgent need for quality hostel accommodation in Brighton, as well as provision for the homeless in terms of shelter and care.  For people like Kristian and his girlfriend, however, one policy makes them destitute.  The vast majority of private landlords and lettings agents require huge deposits of rent which the poor cannot afford.  Brighton is a place for the wealthy only, a place where many of the poor and the homeless are excluded from both housing provision and mainstream society.

‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’

Much is said in modern Britain, and certainly modern Brighton, about ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’.  It is lamentable that these two fashionable buzz words do not apply to the treatment of the poor in the city by the sea.  Where, it must be asked, is the campaign group for the inviolable rights of the homeless? Where is their voice?  Who will speak up for them in Parliament, or in the Council or in any of the corridors of power and influence in the United Kingdom?  That is why this newsletter and blog, The Eye of a Needle, has been started: to give the homeless a much needed voice.

This newsletter is aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Brighton’s homeless community, to document their courage and their sufferings and to encourage social change which will see their urgent concerns addressed in a concrete way.  Human rights, nowadays dressed in terms of personal freedoms have become distorted.  Real human rights are documented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It is high time that the rights of courageous couples like Kristian and his girlfriend were defended and upheld by the people of Brighton.  Like us, Kristian has dreams and aspirations for the future.

“My hope is that we can one day get a place of our own.  I used to be a carpenter.  I’d still love to do it, but where would I keep my tools?  It is hard to get the motivation when you are sleeping on the streets and you have nothing.  Maybe, if I could get myself on my feet, I’d be able to do it, but also, who would take me on?  Because of my past I have a list of convictions for petty crime and then there is the stigma of how we live. You can’t just lift yourself off the street and into normal life.” 

For many on the streets in Brighton, there is no ‘local connection’ and Brighton is, sadly, very much the ‘end of the line’.

Are you homeless?  Do you have a story you want to share? Contact The Eye of the Needle to have your story told.