Read an extract from
No Fixed Abode by Maeve McClenaghan
'A sensitive expose that illustrates the complexities of modern homelessness.
Moving, poetic and as rousing as Orwell.' Cash Carraway, author of Skint Estate
As the number of rough sleepers skyrockets across the UK, No Fixed Abode by Maeve McClenaghan gives a face and a voice to those we so easily forget in our society. Thoroughly researched and readable, this is a devastating, powerful and humane book that deserves to be read widely, so that as a country we can start to address the problem.
Here you can read an exclusive extract as McClenaghan builds her research
You are homeless. Do not pass go.
After I left Richard idling contently in the glow of McDonald’s strip lights, I found myself wandering the streets bewildered. I had been struck by his description of his first night without a place to stay, how he had walked for miles without purpose, simply to avoid having to sit down and accept defeat. How he had run out of options other than sleeping rough. I found myself scanning doorways and side alleys, squinting for clues that the spot had been someone’s bed for the night: the body-flattened cardboard, the cigarette-butt borders. ‘You never forget your first night out,’ Richard had told me.
But what I still didn’t understand was what came before that night. How did people wind up with no other option in the first place?
The support system had changed many times in the decades that Richard had been experiencing homelessness, but these days it was supposedly better than ever. Local councils had legal duties laid out in legislation, duties to help and support those in need. And yet, the more I talked with Jon and Richard, the more I read about the reality, I came to realize that people were still being turned away every single day. Back at the office, and during my digging around, I had come across figures from councils that showed that the number of people approaching them for help was on the rise, but many were accepting fewer and fewer people as genuinely homeless.
I was in the middle of wondering why that could be when the phone rang. On the other end was a woman, calling because she was angry. She was working for an organization that supported people who were facing homelessness and one man she knew had been turned down by the council because he wasn’t deemed at risk enough. He had epilepsy and suffered from inflammation of the oesophagus, depression and alcohol addiction. The council had sent off his records to a medical assessment company who, without ever meeting the man, had given their opinion on his case – that he was not that vulnerable – and the council turned him down. When the man started to rapidly lose weight and suffer vomiting and diarrhoea, the woman tried to get the council to review their decision but they stuck to it, noting that the new symptoms ‘could be a side effect of his alcoholism’. It turned out that the man had terminal cancer. He ended up sleeping in a shed until a few days before he died. ‘Years ago somebody with [his] conditions would have been accepted as “priority need”,’ the woman told me. ‘The shortage of accommodation means local authorities just waffle their way round how somebody with those disabilities can cope just fine living on the streets.’
I put down the phone, shell-shocked. It was incredible that councils could refuse to help people so ill and, indeed, that they were outsourcing advice on such decisions to an arms-length organization which would rarely meet the person in question.
But I soon learnt I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was about to meet another man who had suffered rejection by the system, a man who on paper really had no right to still be alive. David.
David had barely heard the housing officer as she declared his fate; he was trying to focus through the hunger pangs. They were closeted away in a small office and it felt as though the world was closing in. The woman sitting across from him was explaining that, because he was an able-bodied,
single man, he wasn’t considered ‘priority need’: vulnerable enough for emergency housing. ‘I’m sorry, there isn’t much more I can do. My hands are tied,’ she’d said to him.
Not priority need. It was almost laughable.
I met David in a park less than a mile from the council office where this conversation had taken place. He jumped up to greet me warmly, his gangly limbs reaching out to pull me into a hug, trapping my hand – out-reached in an abortive handshake – between us.
Over the course of a little less than two years, his life had blown up. A tall, lean man with dirty blond hair and twinkling, pale-blue eyes, David had worked for most of the 1990s as a chef in the army. He’d travelled the world, cooked for the Queen and, after leaving the army in 1997 and moving to
London, he worked first as head chef at the British Film Institute Southbank, then set up his own pub restaurant. The hours were long, the stress intense and David drank heavily. On Easter Sunday 2011, as families buzzed into the restaurant and the food orders piled in, David started to lose feeling down
the left-hand side of his body. His speech became slurred. He was having a stroke.
After being raced to the hospital, he made a fast recovery, so much so that he was soon back at work. But the exhausting pace of a professional kitchen was too much for his weakened state and he quit soon after.
The following months brought body blow after body blow of misfortune. In the space of two years his boyfriend left him, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, then neurosyphilis and HIV. It was almost too much to process. One day, he was waiting at the council office with a friend when a doctor called with yet more bad news: he had been diagnosed with hepatitis C. David’s response had been blasé. ‘OK,’ he’d said as he hung up the phone. His friend stared at him askance, shocked at the news, but David had barely flinched; he had become numb to it all.
Ill and bewildered, he knew he couldn’t go back to the intensity of working as a chef so he enrolled on a university art course. For a time, art became his therapy. But, unable to work and, being a student, not entitled to any housing benefits, David was struggling to pay both the £6,500 tuition fee
and the £480 a month in rent for the flat he shared with a friend out of the meagre savings he had.
He missed several months’ rent and he knew the landlord and his flatmate were becoming increasingly irate. Ashamed and fearful of the anger that might be unleashed if he showed his face, David found any excuse not to go home. He stayed on friends’ sofas or rotated between a house party one night, to a sex party the next – anywhere just to have a bed for the night. He got used to turning up at the flats of friends’ friends, strangers who he’d ask if he could use the shower, with some excuse for why he needed it. Anything to avoid facing up to the unpaid bills at home.
When he went to the council for help they said there was nothing they could do until he had actually been evicted. ‘Bring us the Section 21 notice,’ they said. But there was never any official letter. Instead he ventured home one day to find the landlord had changed the locks.
Which is how he found himself at the council housing team, presenting as homeless.
‘But surely you . . . surely you would be classed as vulnerable?’ I spluttered.
No. As David was an army veteran, the council worker explained she would put him on the waiting list for a specialist Veteran Housing organization, but the wait could be years. I later looked into that and it turned out that, as an army veteran, David should have been offered extra support. It is well known those leaving the army suffer all kinds of mental health issues, and it is generally acknowledged that by serving one’s country in the armed services you are owed an extra level of protection on return. Yet in 2014 the Ministry of Defence estimated (probably conservatively) that about 3 per cent of London’s rough-sleepers – more than 200 people – were former military personnel. The council David went to was later criticized in an academic report for its online assessment tool, which incorrectly informed veterans that they would be ineligible to join the housing register. But he hadn’t known that at the time, so he’d just accepted it.
More than thirty people become homeless every single day across Britain; now David was one of them. Eventually, he ended up living in his car, a cramped Peugeot 206. A tall man, six foot three inches, David had to stretch his body across both front seats, a pillow over the gearstick, his legs in the front-passenger footwell, to try and get any sleep. When he couldn’t afford fuel, he wasn’t even able to put on the heater. He’d shiver through the night, trying to ignore the cold by scribbling sketches in a small notepad.
‘I thought, I should be able to make this work,’ David explained sadly. After all, he had been in the army, he was a man who knew how to survive. In the mornings he would furtively find a hidden spot on the residential road he had parked in to go to the toilet. He ate fruit off the trees in nearby parks and scouted out the best cafes and delicatessens, loitering outside and waiting for the staff to throw away the uneaten food at the end of the day, then picking it out of the bin to eat. His weight dropped to a precarious 65 kilograms. That is how David lived. Sick. Alone. Afraid. He had done what he was supposed to – he went to the council for help – but there was none to be had.
Maeve McClenaghan is an award-winning investigative journalist at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and founder of the popular, critically-acclaimed podcast, The Tip Off. She has led investigations for BBC radio, the Guardian and Buzzfeed UK. Maeve has won the Bar Council's Legal Reporting Award, the innovation awards at the British Journalism Awards and the European Press Prize. She has also been a finalist for four Amnesty Media Awards, the Paul Foot Award and the Orwell Prize in 2016 and 2018.