‘We felt so worthless and invisible’- what it’s like to be homeless in Ipswich
- Credit: Archant
Reporter Lucy Buchholz and her friend Jake, both volunteers for various homeless organisations, spent a weekend on the streets of Suffolk’s county town before lockdown and were both shocked and amazed by how they were treated.
Waking up on the floor to find a stranger standing over you shouting is a terrifying experience – and one I will never forget. At 3.30am on a Saturday morning my friend Jake and I were both scrunched up in the doorway of the old BHS premises in Ipswich. As the man approached his right hand was clenched into a fist, the other gesturing to his mouth. He looked scruffy, wearing old tattered clothes and had a withered look on his face. He was making noises - not quite words, but they were loud, echoing down the street. Lying on the damp street we both knew we were completely at this man’s mercy. He slowly bent down, placed two £1 coins in Jake’s hand, then clapped his palms together and repeated what we made out to be ‘God bless you’ several times. As he walked away, Jake and I stared at each other in silence, allowing ourselves to breathe freely for the first time since we were abruptly woken.
Both of us are very passionate about helping homeless charities and have volunteered countless hours over the years to support those who have fallen into misfortune. But we see homelessness in shelters, at it’s very best – when people are relieved to be in from the cold, enjoying a hot meal or awaiting a shower. There is a clear divide in society – those who see homelessness as an issue that we all need to support, and others who believe that it’s self-inflicted. So, we wanted to try to understand the issue even more by spending one night on the streets and one night in a shelter. Our weekend began on Friday, February 29 at 9pm. Not only was this an unconventional way to spend our leap year, but it was also the weekend storm Jorge came to town. We had just sleeping bags, a few warm items of clothing, and my work phone to document the experience – no money, food or water.
Our first priority was to find somewhere to sleep. We were stuck between choosing a vacant doorway in The Walk, which was ‘private’ as it had almost no light with few people passing by, or BHS, which was more central and ‘safer’ if something did go wrong. We chose the latter.
We both knew spending a weekend on the streets would be extremely testing, but we expected our biggest challenges would be keeping warm and getting used to being on the cold, hard ground – we were wrong.
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Can you imagine fearing for your safety every time someone walks past you? Now imagine that as you lie vulnerable on the floor trying to sleep. Our brains soon tuned into the smallest sounds - plastic bags blowing by, voices and laughter from neighbouring streets. Everything sounded like footsteps, which led to intense paranoia.
From the moment we stepped out onto the streets we were on high alert, but constantly being on edge is exhausting. We only managed to rest because we were both mentally and physically fatigued, and even then, it was disrupted sleep.
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At around 4am we woke to three lads laughing and shouting ‘throw it, throw it, just do it!’. Before either of us could respond we felt a heavy thud. Something had landed on top of us.
Our reaction was an odd one – instead of immediately sitting upright or trying to confront the men, we just stayed as still as possible, almost as if we were trying to become invisible. As I slowly lifted my head, I saw that they had thrown a traffic cone on us.
It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why anyone would even think to attack vulnerable people asleep on the street. It was a malicious, uncalled for attack. I’m not sure how we fell asleep after that. My eyes would spring wide open at the faintest sound, but we were both far too tired to find somewhere else to sleep. Soon after, I could hear the voices of a man and woman. I couldn’t tell which direction they were coming from, so I kept very still and just let my eyes peek over the sleeping bag. They stopped at the bin opposite, the man starting to search through it. I couldn’t tell what he was picking out, but the girl interrupted him and pointed at us. After a brief pause, he reached into his pocket and started to walk over slowly. I tightly shut my eyes, tried to control my breathing and hoped with every bone in my body that he wouldn’t hurt us.
And he didn’t. He knelt, placed a lighter and half a packet of cigarettes by my face and said: “There you go, mate.”
Neither Jake nor I were able to sleep until the sun began to rise. Rangers woke us just before 9am, giving us 15 minutes to vacate the doorway. Gathering our belongings made us feel like animals in a zoo. I could detect the eyes watching us the whole time.
Our usual hot morning showers were replaced by a quick face wash in the Sailmakers’ public toilets. The lack of privacy was humiliating, but I honestly cared a lot less than I thought I would. As I brushed my teeth, I sensed other women judging me, but I was far too tired to care. The whole experience had already begun to take a toll on our mental health. We started to steer clear of crowds, and felt very uncomfortable in the town centre.
In our short experience we found we no longer felt equal – we’d become invisible. People would give us a wide berth when passing us in the street. Rarely, someone would nod their head in acknowledgement or stop for a chat, which we were very grateful for. But for every act of kindness, there seemed to be someone who wanted to scare us and make us feel worthless. We received a few jeers and threats, which was enough for us to gather our stuff and leave the heart of my home town, where neither of us felt safe.
We received a bottle of water and £6 each from generous people*, which we used to buy the cheapest food we could afford (biscuits and crisps) before sitting in a local park – safe from others. The day was long, cold and boring. We played childish games such as I Spy to pass the time and tried our hardest to relax and even nap, but being cold and damp made it impossible.
The worst part of the day was being caught in the rain. Although we had spare clothes (which we slept in) we didn’t have extra shoes, and of course, we had no way to dry them and nowhere warm to go. We managed to find shelter in a large metal box just big enough for two.
When it was time for me to head to the shelter, I had mixed emotions. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I was dehydrated, hungry, sick, cold, damp and paranoid. But when I arrived at the shelter, I dropped my bags to the floor, had a hot cup of tea and everything felt alright.
Walking through the doors of the Ipswich Winter Night Shelter felt like arriving home after a long, bad day. The people were so welcoming and friendly, and everything Jake and I had been worrying about was no longer an issue. There were toiletries, warm showers, clean toilets, hot food and drink, as well as dry and safe beds. There were board games, books and a TV and games console. The shelter is a space created specifically to help homeless people forget their worries and focus on getting their lives back on track, offering both mental and physical support.
One of the nicest aspects was how everyone was treated equally. There wasn’t a divide between guests and volunteers, as everyone sat, ate, chatted and played games together. It was nice to be looked at and spoken to like a person again.
Sunday mornings are slow in the shelter. At my leisure, I woke up, had some breakfast and enjoyed a chat over coffee with some of the other guests.
Before I slept on the streets, I thought I understood the issue of homelessness well, but during my time out in Ipswich so many problems cropped up that had never even occurred to me. Plastic bags splitting, sleeping bags getting wet, the physical toll of carrying personal items, dealing with my menstrual cycle, finding water, finding shelter from the wind and rain, getting dressed and undressed in public, tackling verbal and physical abuse, finding somewhere to wash, finding free toilets, finding somewhere warm, judgemental looks, constantly walking, having nowhere to go, killing time, feeling dirty, the list goes on and on.
When Jake and I were homeless, our only concern was survival. Our brains soon forgot our usual everyday problems – bills, going to the gym, planning the weekend, cooking dinner – shifting to meet just our primal needs.
I was most surprised by the social interactions that we had. People we expected to be friendly would ignore us. Those we thought would abuse us demonstrated compassion.
The take-home message I learnt from my weekend on the streets was simple: be kind. You don’t have to volunteer or give money, just smile and say hello as you walk past. Just because someone is sleeping rough doesn’t mean their situation is self-inflicted, nor does it mean they’re a bad person. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.
*All money was paid back to a homeless charity.