“I used to walk these streets. I used to go to these shops. Now I’m sat outside asking for spare change.”
These are the heart-breaking words of talented musician ‘Austin’, who at the tender age of 20 has become homeless after his girlfriend cheated on him, changed the locks and moved her new boyfriend into their South Wales home.
Austin, who has previously lived in Chester, came back to the city seeking refuge with family but it didn’t work out. Now he spends his days busking on the city streets and by night he rests in one of the upright chairs provided at an emergency shelter in Ellesmere Port.
“I had a nice house, I had a girlfriend, I had a life, I was on stage every night. I used to go through the subway and I used to see people sitting down and I always used to give them a pound or two.
“But when I’m sitting down and I’ve got nothing and I’m just asking the odd person if they’ve got a bit of change for Christmas, people look at you and look away embarrassed, like they don’t even know you exist and that’s hard.”
Austin says it was only a couple of months ago he was performing on Newport City Radio.
“They’d heard my stuff and they liked me. It’s just that easy, to go from that, being on top of the world, I was in love, I had a beautiful girlfriend, just to nothing, just to absolute nothing.”
Austin is aware of the controversy over Cheshire West and Chester Council’s decision to award the homeless services contract to Foundation Enterprises who aim to set up a 36-bed shelter in the residential community of Boughton.
He accepts a minority will cause trouble from ‘any walk of life’, but stressed: “People only see what they want to see. If they see homeless people fighting, that’s going to be their image of homeless people. You only know what you see.
“Most people don’t see what goes on at 9pm or 10pm when there’s all homeless people huddled up trying to get to sleep because they’re all in bed. So I think it’s a bit narrow-minded to make a judgment on one aspect of things and then stereotype the whole lot of us.”
Former drug addict Gary Hine, 42, who has been homeless on and off for the past 10 years, was begging by The Cross because he says the benefits he receives are not enough to survive even though he finds it degrading.
Gary, who has a heart condition, is grateful to staff at Roodee House where he slept on a sofa the previous night and managed eight hours instead of the usual three.
“You are not guaranteed a bed every night because there’s a lot of kids lately, especially over Christmas. There’s been five young ‘uns, 19, 20, 21 and 23, that have been kicked out because they’ve had an argument. Well, they’re taking someone’s bed.”
Gary, who was with his homeless buddy John Owen, says homeless people drink ‘as a way of getting by’ and to enable them to sleep in the cold.
He continued: “The night before we were sleeping in an engineering room with the motors. The lock’s been broken off and it doesn’t even get used but it’s a roof. We put cardboard down in there and it keeps us dry and it keeps us warm.
“I have good days, I have bad days. But you’ve just got to get on with it. Either that or you’re just going to drive yourself mad.”
When he gets money for food, Gary’s body can’t cope.
“Some days I might not eat for two days. So when I do get some money I’m going to pig out and then it makes me feel sick because your stomach shrinks.”
Gary feels council policy is unfair in that he isn’t given help to find a flat because he has no local connections unlike his mate John who has relatives in Chester and Helsby so will receive support.
But he insists he can’t go back to Wrexham where he does have links. “My brother’s past has caught up with me. If I go back to where I’m from I’ll get killed,” he claimed.
Referencing an article he read in a national newspaper, he added: “They are trying to say to us because we’ve got no connections in this city we can’t get a flat. They’ve got people who have come from other countries. I’m not racist. It’s just wrong.”
A father to university graduate Gemma, 24, Matthew, 22, and Callum 14, Gary said when his relationship broke down he made himself homeless rather than see his ex-partner and youngest son on the street.
“People look at me as though I’m a piece of this concrete and I’m not a human being. It’s not my fault I’m here but people think it is my fault. But people don’t listen to what you’ve got to say.
“It’s all right for them, they’ve got a house they can go back to. Some people say: ‘Well, I’ve worked all my life for that’. I’ve worked all my life and I gave my home up so my kids had somewhere to live.”
Both Gary and his pal John feel police and the authorities are now taking a hard-line against homeless people to make them feel unwelcome, but they don’t believe it will solve anything if they are simply forced to move to another town.
“What they’re saying is we don’t want you in our city,” said Gary. John added: “They haven’t got much for the homeless any more since they closed Crispin House. They’re trying to drive the homeless out.”
Speaking about his dream, Gary said: “Get a roof over my head. Once I’ve got a roof I can think about getting back into work. I’ve worked all my life.
“I’m a grafter but I’ve just had a bit of bad luck and I’m persevering, just trying to get through the day at the moment and then tomorrow’s a different day and tomorrow I might have a bit more luck.”
CHESHIRE West and Chester Council and its new homeless provider Foundation Enterprises North West say there is no reason why any homeless people should have to spend a second night on the streets.
Rough sleepers are offered emergency accommodation, which may be an upright chair, and is not reliant on beds being available.
Council spokeswoman Laura Johnson said: “This prevents rough sleeping, promotes engagement in support services, and maximises inclusion. The ‘safe seat’ service was previously limited to only being available in severe weather which meant people had to make other arrangements including rough sleeping.”
She added: “The principles behind safe seats rest on a careful balance between the provision of a time-limited service that does not create dependency and allows professional staff to assess an individual for more permanent arrangements.”
Miss Johnson pointed out that since the start of the new contract on November 26, FENW had not turned anyone away and had ‘increased the number of people able to access services prior to that date’.
“Because of the up-to-date and recognisable changes brought in by the new service, accommodation with support is available for people and there should be no reason to spend a second night on the streets,” she added.
Addressing the issue of supporting homeless people with a local connection and repatriating others to their home community, she said: “Evidence suggests that one of the key ways of helping people into supported housing and an independent lifestyle is reconnecting them with informal support networks such as family and friends.”
She added: “All service users considered for re-connection will be assessed for their vulnerability and follow up enquiries will be made to validate information within the individual’s home area. Where it is assessed and confirmed that the service user may be at risk, the individual will not be repatriated.”
The new service is staffed 24/7 and operates a round-the-clock helpline on 0300 123 1562. This means that, for the first time, agencies, homeless people, or members of the public can call for help and support at any time of the day or night and expect their call to be answered by a person.
HOMELESS people claim a council contractor is paying for them to be taxied between Chester and Ellesmere Port every day at £30 a time.
Rough sleepers say Foundation Enterprises North West (FENW) covers the taxi fare from the city to a unit at Stoak Lodge, Ellesmere Port, where they rest in chairs overnight before being brought back the next morning.
They claim there are fewer emergency beds available since Chester Aid to the Homeless closed its eight-bed Crispin House shelter when it lost the homeless contract.
However, FENW hopes to open its controversial 36-bed hostel at Richmond Court in Boughton later this year.
One homeless man, Gary Hine, 42, who had spent the previous night at Roodee House in Chester, explained: “They were going to get me a taxi last night to Stoak Lodge and I said ‘What’s the point when there’s a settee here and it will save you £30?’ because they were going to get a taxi just for me to Stoak Lodge.”
Mr Hine, who has been on the streets for the last 10 years, added: “They think that getting rid of the homeless and the beggars out of Chester and putting them in Ellesmere Port is going to solve the problem but it’s not because they’ve still got to come to Chester for appointments.
“So they’re still going to spend all day in Chester any way and they go back to Ellesmere Port at 10pm.”
Cllr Justin Madders, Labour opposition leader on Cheshire West and Chester Council, said: “The money for this will be coming from the taxpayer somewhere along the line. I do not know how the use of such money to ferry homeless people between Ellesmere Port and Chester in taxis can be justified whoever is footing the bill. It sounds to me like the system is a shambles.”
A FENW spokesperson said: “There are a small number of individuals who, through our assessment procedures prior to the contract going live, requested a move to Ellesmere Port and wish to consider more permanent residence in this community.
“Our assessment revealed that some of these individuals required the successful transfer of a number of their statutory relationships with health partners and others. The mechanics of this can take some time and on this basis we agreed to support some individuals with transport costs for a limited period of time. All costs for this are being met by FENW through the contract.”