Bianca Todd of Community Courtyard describes the shocking moment she found a homeless relative in Northampton had been set on fire by teenagers…
Walking down Abington Street through the town centre some people notice the empty shops; I’m noticing the increasing numbers of people who are street homeless.
When I think of homelessness as an issue, I am mindful about how different we treat homeless dogs in comparison to homeless humans.
If when walking around Abington Park, or indeed any park you happened to see a homeless dog, and you approach the pooch, the pooch is a little yappy, he does a small growl; you would still expect the RSPCA to come and collect the dog, not to have a chat with the dog, but to take him straight to a kennels to be kept safe.
When we see people living on the streets and we report this to the council, we do not have the same expectation as we do not treat humans with the same unconditional compassion.
My uncle-in-law Terence has been street homeless on and off for many years. He is alcohol dependent and as a result, he now has dementia.
For the past few years his home has been the wooden bus shelter on the Wellingborough Road, at the edge of Abington Park. Spending his days with the homeless community and returning back to his ‘home’ at the park at night.
Terence has just turned fifty one years old, he’s really lucky, as he almost didn’t make it.
Terence had told spoken about people who had been setting him on fire, however we thought this was a man sharing past memories, as lots of dementia patients do. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
As we were driving home on a Tuesday evening, we drove past the park and noticed that there was a man near where Terence usually slept, sensing this was unusual, we turned around to take a look.
What we found was Terence, so intoxicated that he was unaware of anything that was happening, he was lying in a sleeping bag that was on fire, surrounded by broken bottles. The man we had spotted was shouting at a group of five young people – who he had interrupted setting Terence on fire.
There is of course an issue to explore in terms of young people setting a human on fire, however before we embark on that, as that is for a different conversation, lets go back to that night.
Phoning the police was the first point of action, their response reminded me of how invisible the street homeless community are. No urgency, no action, how could they follow up with Terrence their investigation – he didn’t have a home for them to visit? The place he had called home, was no longer safe for him to stay.
When the two officers came out to Terence, they had come to the reported crime scene with a predetermined assumption that Terence was a drunk and therefore the allegation that he had been set on fire was likely to be exaggerated. If, when the police saw him earlier in the evening, they had carried out their duty of care, then maybe he would not have been a victim of crime; but we know that homeless people are invisible and often views are held which believe that the impact of their addictions not worthy of treatment.
These views are wrong.
There are enough empty houses in the county that all of the homeless people could have a place that they could call home. In order for that to happen, then the council would need to make some significant decisions that put people first, challenging private landlords to accept tenants with benefits, which in austerity times seems unlikely to happen.
This issue homelessness is not only about Terence, his story merely reminds us there are many who are only a pay check away from being homeless. The cost of living is rising and people are struggling to make ends meet, financial pressures are horrendous and the impact on mental health is significant.
Northampton is the first council to effectively be described as bankrupt so it can feel as if there is no hope, as they have no spare money to go around. Although money to invest has diminished, hope has not, the council has a responsibility to carry out its statutory duties and not to expect the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces.
We can all play our part in rebuilding Northampton and I would like to make a suggestion. People need people, so instead of walking past a person on the street, instead of throwing pennies at their feet, why not give up fifteen minutes of your time.
Invite a homeless person to have a hot drink with you in a cafe, listen to their life story, hear how they ended up street homeless and what the barriers are for them to finding affordable accommodation.
People need people, that human contact creates a movement of hope which as the winter months begin and the nights get darker and colder is needed more than ever.
If you are interested in doing something this winter for homeless people, then why not get involved in this years rucksack project.
Every year Community Court yard create rucksacks full of essential items and then distribute them to people who find themselves street homeless.
You can drop off items to Ron Todd House 41. Lea Road. Abington. Northampton. NN1 4PE.
You can come and join us on Abington Street, outside the main library on Saturday 8th December 2018 to help us distribute the rucksacks.
All donations gratefully received.