Homeless in Brighton

The Guardian, May 25 1991

Brighton is a plump little town. In a survey last year, academics at Reading University analysed the wealth of all the major towns and cities of Europe and discovered that only 18 towns in the whole continent were richer than Brighton and that in the United Kingdom, there was none to match its wealth.

This month, it has been showing off its artistic riches in the Brighton Festival – Julie Walters at the Theatre Royal, the BBC Symphony Orchestra at The Dome, readings, recitals, a retrospective on Orson Welles and a Regency banquet in the Royal Pavilion at £70 a head (including wine). So it is hard to believe what Jimmy says.

But according to Jimmy, Brighton is a place where men and women lie dying in the streets. He says this with some force because he spent the last ten years lying alongside them and he remembers the names of those who failed to survive: Tony Hannigan who died of the cold and a broken heart; ‘Barbados’, the West Indian, who suffered a fit on the pavement outside a bistro in The Lanes; Scotty, who was only 23 when he accidentally set fire to himself in a derelict building. And Hughie Quinn.

“We were lying in Norfolk Square one night, me and Hughie Quinn. And the police come and say ‘Come on now, get moving’. So I says to him ‘Come on, Hughie’ and he doesn’t move, and the policeman says to me ‘He’s not gonna move’. He’d died on my shoulder, right there in Norfolk Square.”

Jimmy is urgent to be believed. He is aged 52 and was formerly a landscape gardner in Egham. He admits his weakness as a witness: for all the years that he slept on the pavements and park benches of Brighton, he was lost in a fog of alcohol. He used to totter round the backs of the big hotels at night, collecting the dregs from discarded bottles until he had a half-pint cocktail of dynamite to blow him over backwards for the day.

But he has stopped drinking now, and he remembers his ‘skippering’ in Brighton with terrible clarity: the Friday night thugs who kick the stuffing out of homeless people on the beach; the night that Father Sharp from St Patrick’s found him comatose in the cold and carried him on his back to the church; the rats that come sniffing round and wake you by gnawing at your clothes; and every hole in every wall that he found he could fit in for the night – the lift shaft in the car park by Churchill Square, the coal bunkers by the big houses in Montpelier Road, the sheltered benches on the front in Hove.

And he remembers the slow but undeniable change he saw in the other homeless people who joined him over the years on the streets of Brighton: “There’s more of them than ever now, and they’re younger than ever now. It used to be that the only people you saw sleeping there were the alcoholics or people who had some problem like that. Now, it’s just people, ordinary people.”

Jimmy is not alone in this view. The housing advice centre in Western Road reports ‘a vast numerical increase’ in homeless people asking for help. Brighton Council now has 2,052 families waiting for houses – more than twice the number it had five years ago. Last year, the council gave emergency accommodation to 536 families – twice the number it had to deal with only three years ago. And they are ordinary people, nudged out of the nest by some ordinary problem and suddenly finding that there is nothing to stop them falling all the way down to the street.

Mark Boydell, aged 25, with blond hair and glasses, comes from Widnes where he worked as a double-glazer and earned £250 a week until he broke up with his wife last year. For a while, he slept on friends’ floors. Depressed and with his routine broken, he was late for work several times and lost his job. His friends said he could not stay with them for ever. So, in December, he packed a tent and some spare clothes and headed south in search of work.

He spent several weeks camping in a quarry near Lewes, tramping 15 miles to Newhaven and back to sign on with the DSS, who would give him only £17 a week on the grounds that it was his fault that he had lost his job. He tried to hitch back home but got caught in the February snow storms. He took refuge in Gatwick Airport where he fell asleep in the departure lounge until two in the morning when the police spotted him and put him out in the snow again. He ended up in Brighton, sleeping on the floor of St Patrick’s Church, where he was eventually hospitalised after developing a neck ulcer the size of a tennis ball.

Jim (no relation to Jimmy), who is aged 46, lived in Birmingham and worked for 14 years as a theatre technician in one of the hospitals. He had a comfortable home and a stable life until, like Mark Boydell, his marriage broke up. “Some people take to drink or drugs. I was never attracted by any of that. I just decided to take off, working here and there. I found myself sleeping rough, which was hard, very hard in the beginning but as the weeks turned into months, you say ‘OK, I’m a social outcast’, and part of you accepts it.” Ten years later, he has still not found a new home.

The scattered shapes of people corpsing on the pavements of this town are particularly striking, not simply because of the shock of finding them under the bright lights of Beautiful Brighton, but also because Brighton has been peculiarly diligent and generous in its efforts to help them.

Brighton’s Labour council has defied the Government’s efforts to use rate-capping and legal blocks to stop the construction of council houses. Wriggling its way through tiny loopholes in the law, Brighton has succeeded in building 700 new houses in the last four years. It has launched young people on a scheme to build their own homes with the help of an architect and it ran a successful scheme to transfer its homeless out of cramped bed-and-breakfast rooms into leased flats, until the government cut off their funding in April.

The town’s biggest charity is the Brighton Housing Trust. It builds houses but it also looks after its tenants, providing intensive therapy for alcoholics, staying in touch with people they manage to house to find them furniture or to explain, for example, that the absence of a coin slot does not mean electricity is being provided for free or that when a gas bill is printed in red, that is a threat and not a decoration. The Trust also owns a big bright hall near the centre of Brighton where they provide cheap food, free clothes, and a large communal sitting room for the town’s homeless.

As a result, there is some good news on the streets. Brenda Marshall, aged 58, left her council flat in Blackpool last year because her husband, Jack, had died suddenly and she found it too painful to live there without him. She soon started to fall. She found a bedsit but suffered a nervous breakdown. She was put into a psychiatric hostel but the woman who shared her room tried to strangle her. She was transferred to another hostel, but the manager took her DSS giro and gave her only £11 to live off.

Blackpool had little to offer. “There’s no choice. You end up sleeping rough.” In Brighton, the Trust, whose staff sometimes make 60 phone calls to find one spare room, kept her off the streets by tucking her into a convent for two months before squeezing her into a bed-and-breakfast. Now, the council think they may even have found her a flat. Yet, despite the efforts of the council and the Trust, the waves of homeless people keep breaking onto the streets, at least half of them local people.

The explanation is simple enough. Jenny Backwell, the Trust’s director, points to a lethal mismatch of supply and demand: the cost of buying a house in Brighton soared at an annual rate of 35% in the late 1980s, and the cost of renting a small flat has risen to £120 a week; at the same time, wages in Brighton’s hotels and restaurants are still as low as £2 or £3 an hour, while state benefits have been cut. No money if you are under 18. No deposit money if you find somewhere to rent. No money for your breakfast, heat or light. No money for furniture. You lose 40% of your living allowance if you are deemed to have lost work through your own fault.

Yet, Gill Haynes, who has chaired Brighton’s housing committee for the last three years, sees some hope. “There’s still land. There’s still money. We can build houses faster, cheaper, better than anybody else can. That’s what really gets to me. It’s the total irrationality of the system. It’s made to seem as if it is inevitable that people should live like this. But it isn’t inevitable at all. We can tackle it. We can do it.”