08:00 Thursday 23 January 2014

Hunger, cold, death: grim reality of life on the streets

Written byLAURA HAMMOND

Following the death of homeless man Wayne Fotheringham, the Mail takes a look at what it is like to be living on the streets.

LAURA HAMMOND met up with some of the people who use a weekly soup kitchen.

THE St Vincent de Paul (SVP) soup kitchen was quiet.

Many of the homeless people who usually go there had met up elsewhere to raise a glass to one of their own, Wayne Fotheringham, who died in Burton last week.

On a regular Tuesday, the number of people using the voluntary soup kitchen in its 12 until two window can reach up to 17, as homeless people and those who are on the streets seek out a place to have a hot meal, a cup of tea and a bit of company.

For people like Peter Coker, the chance to head to the parish centre at St Mary and St Modwen RC Church, in Guild Street, is very much appreciated.

“This is a blessing. Before this opened you had soup kitchens Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday there was nothing. You just have to find something from somewhere else,” he told the Mail.

Finding food is one of the main problems faced by people who live on the streets, the 55-year-old said. When the voluntary soup kitchens are not running, those who are living rough are often left to rely on the generosity of other people, or simply go hungry.

Earlier this week, Andrej Neciaj did not eat for four days.

“My health is not good. I suffer with illness and I have no muscle. My doctor said I do not look good. I find it hard to make myself stand up and live my life,” said Mr Neciaj, 26.

This is the third time in his short life the Lithuanian national has been on the streets, and he said each time he had found it harder to pick himself up and try to get on with his life. This time, he has been sleeping rough for 11 weeks.

“I’m only 26 years old, but when you are feeling illness and you are finding it hard to get up, sometimes I’m thinking ‘how much longer can this go on?’

“The worst thing is the horrible cold. I got flu last week and I was feeling very bad. I couldn’t get out of my sleeping bag. My friend brought me tablets and told me I had to get up or I would die. The winter has been quite mild this year, but two years ago it was terrible.”

Mr Neciaj, like many homeless people, is facing the problem of being unable to get a job, and so being unable to afford a home. He said he was worried that his deteriorating health could cause problems in his job hunt.

Mr Coker agreed, saying all he wanted was the chance to get a job. Although he is homeless, he still has to sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance, and uses computers in the library or at the YMCA Reconnect centre to surf the internet for employment opportunities.

It is not the first time Mr Coker has been in this position. He has been sleeping rough on and off since 1975, when he left his mother’s house after a series of issues in the family.

He has spent time sleeping on park benches and squatting, and used to call a church doorway home. He now rests his head near the river. With a camping mat, a sleeping bag and several layers of clothing, he said he ‘could barely feel the cold’. But with a catalogue of medical problems, he accepts that braving the elements on an everyday basis could do nothing to improve his health.

Buoyed by his Christian faith, he adopts a fatalistic view of his lifestyle – even when it comes to physical attacks from other people.

On one occasion several years ago, a group of men beat him in a sustained attack which they filmed – just because he was there.

“I wouldn’t say I ever get scared. I trust in God to protect me, and he does. What will be, will be. There is always the worry about what’s going to happen, and some people don’t know what to do,” Mr Coker said.

Still, the death of Wayne Fotheringham has rocked the confidence of both he and other rough sleepers. The 41-year-old died at Burton Rugby Club in the early hours of last Thursday, after paramedics could not resuscitate him.

Andrew Smith, 41, has been charged with supplying Class A drugs in relation to the death and has been remanded in custody following an appearance in court.

“There’s always a concern when you’ve had a few too many that you will be susceptible to other people,” said Mr Coker, who said he was an alcoholic but did not take drugs.

There is help for homeless people in Burton, with the YMCA offering a Reconnect service for a couple of hours a day, support available at the Salvation Army, and a number of soup kitchens, but both Mr Coker and Mr Neciaj said their situation was made worse by the response of other people.

Mr Neciaj said he had been moved on several times when he was sleeping at the rugby club, and police had run him out of an old building he was squatting in.

He said: “A lot of people are nice people, but I am on my own; there is nobody to help me. The police said they could not help me, and I have to keep moving around.”

Other changes, such as the overnight closure of toilets in the Market Place and the foyer at a town centre bank, which was a popular sleeping spot, have pushed homeless people further onto the edges of society, leading many into antisocial behaviour and to an increasingly negative response from members of the public.

Mr Coker blamed those who abused these facilities, leaving needles on the ground and sleeping in the disabled toilet, adding that he thought they gave homeless people a bad name

“It makes it even more difficult,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

And with economic issues continuing to bite, it seems there is little chance of the situation improving in the Burton area.

The number of people accessing help from soup kitchens is rising, and the amount of food parcels handed out by organisations in the town is at an all-time high.

But there are people trying to help, and it is clear that both Peter and Andrej are grateful for that.

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