It is easy to walk past homeless people and ignore them, convincing ourselves they are responsible for their own demise.
Post-pandemic, with an increasing cost of living, rising rent prices and withdrawal of emergency measures, homelessness is on the rise. In 2022, 3,069 people were recorded as sleeping rough, on a single night in the UK.
Yet, an often-overlooked factor in homelessness is the prevalence of mental health problems. In a 2014 study by the World Health Organisation, 80% of homeless people reported mental health issues.
The relationship between mental health and homelessness is two-way: mental health problems often precipitate homelessness, and homelessness further exacerbates mental health issues. As some of society’s most socially isolated individuals, loneliness can drastically impact homeless people’s mental health.
By hearing their stories and giving them a voice, we can extend a hand, bringing them back from the fringes of society. And so, I want to introduce you to Richard.
I first met Richard outside my local train station. As a woman and psychiatric researcher, I am often torn between personal safety and a desire to help when walking past a homeless person. However, the humanity of Richard's sign touched me, and I doubled back, asking if I could sit down for a chat.
Richard told me that he is a keen reader and a lover of art, particularly favouring Gustav Klimt. He has liberal attitudes and a deep concern for the environment, he is a sports fan and a great dancer. But walking by, one may not give a second thought to the anonymous person behind the homelessness, nor the factors that led to it.
Richard describes how in 1977, at age 12, he was taken aside by a concerned teacher who noticed his “bruises, broken arm, wrist and cheekbone that had been fractured in four places". Richard revealed his father had inflicted these injuries: "when he [the teacher] asked, I just told him".
In 1973 Richard’s older brother died in car accident. Inexplicably, his father directed his grief at Richard. The logic behind this cruel treatment is something that mystifies Richard. "It’s something I have never understood", he tells me.
Richard was placed in a children’s home. But, subject to intense bullying, he was miserable. He made repeated attempts to run away and was eventually moved to a remand house where the staff (he called them "ruthless") did not discriminate between young offenders and vulnerable children. According to Richard, "They tarred you all with the same brush", employing brutal tactics; "If you cried, they would hit you. If you didn't eat your food, they would hit you. They would condition you to their way of thinking, with continuous threats of violence".
Thankfully, Richard had a brilliant care worker advocating for him, and in 1979 he was placed into a third children’s home. Here, the staff acted as his “new mothers and fathers”, empowering him to pursue his aspirations. He attended college, gaining his City and Guilds culinary qualification.
This was also where he met his future partner Laura, who had also suffered terrible abuse from her father, becoming pregnant and enduring an abortion before age 13.
Richard describes being “drawn” to Laura and their friendship eventually "grew into love". They moved in together at age 18.
Richard continued to progress in his career, becoming a head chef and even went back to university, achieving a 2:1 in Psychology.
Richard is utterly devoted to Laura, and he describes her as, “the love of my life”. Their “beautiful” relationship was one built on “trust, honesty, respect and love” and he says that they truly were “best friends”.
But, on 12th February 2018, Laura suffered a sudden brain haemorrhage which caused a massive stroke. Tragically, she did not recover.
Reeling from the shock of Laura’s death, Richard was left “confused”, “angry” and “totally heartbroken”. His “rock of 39 years” was gone. Richard describes how this affected him: “The pain of losing Laura seemed to increase day on day. I started to drink alcohol to blot out these feelings…but they were back in the morning. So, the cycle of alcohol dependency began. It totally consumed me".
Thus, in 2020, having spent all his savings, Richard was left homeless. With no family to turn to he had no choice but to live on the street, where he continued to drink.
In 2021, after 8 months, one couple who had been good friends with Laura, came to see him. They handed Richard £250 saying, “You can do one of two things: go and get drunk or use this money to seek help. Laura would not want you to do this to yourself".
This was the push Richard needed. With the help of his GP, he started rehab, determined to quit drinking. He says, "I had enjoyed 39 happy years with Laura, and knew she wouldn’t want me to have another 39 unhappy years without her".
Within 28 days Richard left rehab sober.
He was subsequently offered social housing. But when he went to view it, the living room was littered with “empty beer cans, plastic cider bottles, empty spirit bottles". Richard was "gobsmacked". Certain that he had a better chance of remaining sober on the street, he handed back the keys. Having refused the accommodation, he was taken off the housing register and was only recently reinstated.
Since becoming homeless Richard has faced further abuse. He has been urinated on whilst sleeping, dragged down the road in his sleeping bag, had three teeth kicked out, his hand stamped on and been "spat at, shouted at and told to 'get out of the area'". These attacks have been by strangers, typically at night when he is at his most vulnerable, 'cocooned in a sleeping bag'. These attacks make Richard fear people, isolating him.
Richard’s mental health has also deteriorated, largely due to loneliness. Having to remain vigilant, with constant noise disruptions, he only sleeps between 12am and 5am. The other 19hrs of each day he spends alone. It is this loneliness that led Richard to put up his sign.
When I asked Richard what he thinks passers-by can do to help the homeless, he suggested simply offering a smile, a “good morning” and stopping for a chat.
Richard radiates positivity and warmth. Astonishingly, despite the lifelong abuse, neglect and stigma Richard has faced, he chooses to focus on the people who have advocated for and supported him. He is a beacon of hope and humanity.
I am thrilled to finish this article with the news that Richard's hope paid off. On 8th June 2023, Richard was offered suitable housing in a quiet and comfortable estate. He plans to reconnect with his colleagues in the restaurant industry and is determined to return to work by the end of August.
It shouldn’t have to take a sign to remind us that there is a person behind each nameless face. Offering social connection is free and the least we can do to try to help combat the loneliness of our unhoused neighbours. After all, as Richard says: “its good to talk”.