Imagine this. Homeless. Where will we rest tonight? Down by the seafront? Up in the hills? Curled up in a damp high-street doorway? Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake. With little in terms of cover. Can we imagine that? The easiest response is that those nightmares could not possibly visit our sheltered lives.
Easy, but what if our admirable life-stories had taken alternative plots. An unbearable lockdown during which we had fallen for a destructive but unshiftable alcohol or drug habit. Easily done. Street, beach, or forest? We can no longer afford rising mortgage or rent payments. Our partner kicked us out yesterday. Strong winds destroy our homes. Do not enjoy the support of family and friends. Cannot access an emergency hostel because there is nowhere to leave our beloved dog. We are not from here. Just out of prison. At the very bottom of the housing list.
Imagine suffering with increasingly unmanageable mental health issues, a military veteran perhaps. An existence already so complicated that additional ideas of settling into a permanent home, any thoughts of rent, bills, complex responsibilities become muddling thoughts; enough to raise feelings of dread and distress. An almost existence that can go on so long, become so ingrained, that a familiar bench becomes more appealing than the insecure promise of a soft, dry, but unfamiliar one-night emergency hostel bed. Imagine that.
Imagine also suffering from chronic physical and health problems, all without a permanent address. With no photo ID, accessing routine public services has become an insoluble challenge. Registering for a doctor or getting hospital treatment requires ID (unless all but unconscious). No fixed abode. No dentist. No banking to receive those financial benefits to which we are obviously entitled.
So, here we are, entirely destitute. Weather turning. Winter coming. Where shall we go? Again, the easy answer is that the horrors of homelessness are hypothetical and could not come calling. But what if they do? For I am suddenly within arm’s reach of 60 years old. Spent large parts of last winter moaning and groaning about how difficult and expensive it was to keep cosy at home. Would not last more than a moment if forcibly exposed to the elements.
Putting myself aside (tough ask), the past week I have been trying to imagine being seventy-two years old (wince), and having slept rough for years, and years, and years. Never moving up the housing list. There is little doubt I would be feeling that the council and other relevant agencies must be holding some kind of bespoke vendetta against me. The only explanation as to why my needs have been ignored for ever. The only explanation as to why I must still live like this. At seventy-two years old.
Putting subtle subtext aside, one of our senior citizens has resided in the Aberystwyth prom storm shelter pretty much since it was rebuilt. He is a resilient gentleman who reminds me that there, but for a misstep or two, go I. The man arrived in mid Wales in 1969. This aging man will turn down all offers of a hostel bed, he says. Would prefer a familiar hard surface than surf unfamiliar rooms, with unfamiliar people. As often as not, unfamiliar people with antisocial tendencies and all-too-familiar drug and alcohol problems. Tonight, and tomorrow night, a seventy-two-year-old Aberystwyth legend will feel safer sleeping rough on the prom than within a hostel. Imagine that.
Although not large numbers, there is a visible rough-sleeping problem so recognisable to Aberystwyth residents that many have come to know our homeless by name - alternatively, must turn away an awkward eye as we drift past a real person, evidently fallen, evading state safety nets, on the concrete and yet to rise up.
There is no simple remedy for this stubborn homelessness. Cannot place such a diverse group of characters into one ‘needs’ basket. No single answer, strategy, or policy that will solve what is a complicated puzzle of requirements. But for me, however the man on the prom got there, whatever the backstory, it is time for local agencies to link arms in concerted effort to negotiate a safer and comfortable autumn and winter. Frail, vulnerable, seventy-two years old. A man who says he would prefer a warm permanent address, even though warmth, dry, and comfort may take time to get used to.
If I ruled the world (imagine that) or was in a leadership position in one of the many social or medical agencies that intersect homelessness, urgent conversations would be the order of the day. No more patronising offers nor deaf instructions. Knowing better than to try to tell this irrepressible OAP what to do. No option to wash our hands of him. No longer someone else’s problem. My responsibility must be to prioritise, to listen, and successfully facilitate the man on the prom’s transition into safe permanent managed housing before another hard winter sets in. To treat and restore to good health. The alternative, and I hesitate to go there, is that one morning, one year, Aberystwyth will need to react (or ignore) finding this gentle pensioner dead on the prom. Imagine that.
Lyrics taken from: Homeless (with Ladysmith Black Mambazo) Paul Simon, 1986