‘Being homeless felt inevitable’: after years in care, I was living in a tent. Who was to blame?
When I zipped up my tent on my first night sleeping rough, I felt no despair. It was 2013 and I had picked a grassy patch near a bridle path, where I listened to the wind rustling through the trees as raindrops bounced off my nylon roof. I had always assumed something like this was going to happen to me. It had felt almost inevitable for years.
When viewed in isolation, my journey to the streets seems entirely of my own making. I had racked up considerable rent arrears, I was drinking heavily and I had left my flat without being evicted. I went to live in a tent and on random sofas for a few weeks, before moving into a charitable homeless hostel. Surely it was all my fault?
I wish I could say I was forced on to the streets by an unscrupulous landlord, addiction to hard drugs or something more dramatic, but sloth, shame and overwhelming paranoia were what did it. It was as if I needed to check out, to yield to a tide that was out of my control, to let it wash me up where it wanted.
But the more I dug into my journey, the more it became clear that I had been failed repeatedly along the way – from the special-education boarding school to the care home, the police, the precarious jobs and the effects of austerity. Some will be surprised that I am writing this – alongside a book – at all. People with my background don’t normally make it into print. But this is my story.
In 1997, when I was 11, my key worker entered my classroom and presented me with a small, green paper parcel, which she unfurled, revealing a thick, white powder. I leaned forward and gathered as much of it as I could with my tongue, making sure not to miss a speck. I was told the bitter taste in my mouth was going to make me better; make me good.
The classroom was in a special-education boarding school – let’s call it Dippydale – for children with learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I was there because, since as soon as I could form memories, I had been told there was something wrong with me – and they had a point. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when I was seven didn’t need to strain his diagnostic skills. During our first session, I did my best Spider-Man impression on his bookshelves when I was supposed to be arranging a series of simple pictures into logical sequences.
I burned all my bridges with mainstream education, so, at 11, I ended up at Dippydale. The school was in the middle of nowhere, on the foreboding West Pennine Moors. Emotional outbursts, fights and restraints routinely disrupted teaching. The soundtrack to the school’s corridors was: “Get the fuck off me, now!” The favoured restraint was known as the B-52. It involved lining up three chairs next to each other and plonking an unfortunate child on the middle chair, with two members of staff flanking them, locking the child’s arms across their laps with one hand and pushing the child’s head down with the other. It was named after the bomber presumably because the contorted child resembled a plane.
Restraints were a rite of passage at the school and I soon had my turn. I had enuresis (I wet the bed). There were four boys to a room in the boarding house, so it was impossible to hide this embarrassing problem. My key worker at the time – let’s call him Mr Lanky – thought he could remedy this by waltzing into my bedroom every morning before my roommates had awoken to ask me if I was dry – only he would spell it out, as if that would keep it secret. “Are you D-R-Y?” he would ask. We might have been div kids, but we could still spell – and smell.
I didn’t need excuses to distract myself from schoolwork and behave badly, but the bullying gave me some anyway. My first B-52 came after I refused to go back inside after breaktime over petty frustrations on the football pitch. I was dragged back into the music room by two teachers and restrained. I knew all the lyrics to the school’s soundtrack by this point and belted them out with furious gusto: “Get the fuck off me now, you bastards!” I was so upset and helpless as I sat there, immobilised in pain, that I spat on the floor in frustration. A third teacher, who was standing over me, took a tissue, gathered up my spittle and wiped it over my face.
I didn’t think much of the restraints at the time; they were like clockwork at school. Now, I perceive them almost as injustices that happened to someone else, a little boy I knew a long time ago.
A 2016 study funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US found that ADHD substantially increased the risk of homelessness. The study tracked 134 boys aged between six and 12 diagnosed with ADHD in the 1970s. When they caught up with the boys three decades later, they found that 24% of them had been homeless, more than five times the rate for a control group of neurotypical children.
Like me, many homeless adults start on their route to destitution in childhood. According to a 2018 survey conducted by Evolve Housing, a London-based homeless charity, 79% of the 156 participants reported at least one childhood trauma. While Evolve stops short of claiming there is a causal link between childhood trauma and homelessness, it does say there is “a disproportionally high level of those experiencing homelessness following traumatic childhood experiences”. Even if there is no causal link, I was about to add to the neurological disorder and trauma via a different conduit to homelessness.
I never thought I would go into care. It seemed like a horror story, an abstraction exclusive to fictional characters or people in the news. But by the time I reached the front door of my new foster home, my life was spiralling from one catastrophe to the next. This was just the latest one.
As well as my disrupted education and bad behaviour, my mum’s budding relationship with my new stepdad was adding to tensions at home. He and I now get on. He is my dad, I love him and that’s that. But our relationship has been fraught over the years.
Dad was an entertaining chastiser. He had a series of greatest hits that could have filled a double-sided compilation album: Now That’s What I Call a Bollocking. My all-time favourite was when he told me off for relentlessly teasing my brother on one hyperactive afternoon at my grandma’s house: “Now listen, boy, and listen well!” he growled. “You’re nine years old now; you’re halfway to being 18!” He was halfway to being 60 at the time, so by his logic we should have been preparing for his retirement.
Looking back, I don’t blame my parents. I was a little bastard at the best of times and my parents, who had problems of their own and were offered little support from social services, were not equipped to cope.
Children in care are more likely to leave school with fewer qualifications than children who remain at home. They are more likely to be unemployed, to have mental illness and to enter the criminal justice system. It is almost as if the care system trains children for destitution.
After a year in the system, I was expelled from Dippydale and finished my secondary education at 15, with no qualifications. In the same year, I had my first run-in with the police. The staff had already lost control of the kids under their charge before I arrived at a claustrophobic children’s home in Manchester. Bad behaviour went unpunished or was penalised inconsistently. All this taught us was that we could do what we wanted and there would be no penalties until things got so out of hand that the police had to be called. Then, instead of a grounding or a dock in pocket money, we earned a criminal record.
The first time I got nicked, I and a few other kids decided that breaking furniture and shouting abuse at the staff was preferable to going to bed. Aside from exhaustion, police intervention was probably the only thing that would have stopped us that night. But a 999 call could have been avoided if the staff weren’t so inconsistent and incompetent. I ended up in handcuffs on several occasions after that, once for breaking a mug. Often the police would come just to make sure we went to bed. The little respect we had for the staff disappeared as soon as they had us criminalised; rebelling against them became our raison d’etre.
It all came to a head on one sunny summer afternoon. Lucy, who was 14 and the only girl living at the home, was visited by Hamza, her 18-year-old boyfriend. He was hanging around with her on the front doorstep. Lucy wanted to come back into the unit for a drink, but the staff told her she couldn’t come in if Hamza was still on the premises. He refused to go. Lucy shouted obscenities through the letterbox: “Let me in, you fuckin’ dick’eds; it’s my house, yeah?” she said, cackling. “Yo, Danny! Carter! Let us in, man!” Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Carter, the lanky “top boy” of the unit, and I obliged.
Two male staff members were on that day. Let’s call them Gramps (he had a white beard) and Titch (he was tiny). Meanwhile, Joyless (she was mean) was manning the office. Titch put his hand on the door to try to keep it shut, but Carter managed to overpower him. Gramps had been blocking my path, but when Carter got the door open, Gramps rushed over to shut it, giving me enough space to slip past him and over the threshold. The staff locked the door behind us and shook their heads in disgust as we flipped them off from outside.
Hamza distracted us from tormenting the staff when he produced the gun he had brought along. I don’t know if it was real, but it looked real enough, and Hamza got nervous when we turned the barrel on Titch and Gramps through the window.
Things went on like this for a while until we grew bored and wanted to come back in. The staff insisted we enter one at a time, but as soon as they opened the door for me to go in, an almighty scuffle broke out as Hamza and Carter attempted to force their way inside with me. Gramps had Hamza in a chokehold, while Carter had Titch in a clinch and was thrusting his knee sharply, relentlessly, into Titch’s face. Eventually, Titch crumpled to the floor.
Carter then rushed outside and attempted to pick up one of the boulders lying on a flower bed close to the entrance. “Why aren’t you doing anything, you pussy?” he shouted to me as I stood there, frozen. He couldn’t lift the boulder and went for a fire extinguisher near the door instead. Hamza had managed to wriggle free before Carter could put the extinguisher to use, but a flurry of punches and kicks followed, then sirens. Carter, Lucy and Hamza fled past me. I was still rooted to the spot, staring in disbelief at Gramps and Titch’s unconscious, bloodied bodies. “C’mon!” Carter shouted as he dragged me away.
I found my feet and sprinted after them. The air was filled with deafening sirens – and they were for us. We ran as fast as we could, for as long as we could – longer than we had ever run before. When we stopped – when we could no longer hear sirens – it felt like my whole body had become engorged and my tongue was made of copper.
Carter and I watched Hamza and Lucy make their way up a long, dark street with red-brick terrace houses on either side. They stopped at one near the end and were invited in after a brief chat at the front door. Hamza looked at us and shook his head apologetically as he crossed the threshold with Lucy. By now, it was getting dark. The uniformity of the red terraces under the ugly orange streetlamps was the perfect backdrop for our bleak circumstances.
“We could go to my gran’s house,” I suggested to Carter.
“Yeah? Where does she live?” he said.
“Greenfield,” I said.
Carter managed a laugh. “Nah. Mission, that.”
“What are we gonna do then?” I asked.
“Go back,” he said. Carter started walking.
“If we go back, we’ll get lifted,” I said.
“I’ll get lifted. Fuck all’s gonna ’appen to you,” he said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because I know! You didn’t do owt, did you?”
We didn’t talk much on the way home. The adrenaline that kept us on our toes for more than four miles had sapped from our bodies and left cold reality behind. We knew Carter had ruined his life; the slow march home felt like a funeral procession. We arrived back and I knocked on the door as Carter took a seat on the bottom rung of the railings that ran along the front-door steps, the same place where all the drama began.
Joyless came to the door with Biker (he commuted by bike from Halifax), a stout thirtysomething care worker for whom no one had much time. Joyless was wearing a look of revulsion as she appeared at the door. “Just you,” she said to me. I looked back at Carter. “Told you. Go on,” he said.
What began as defiance of the rules, broken curfews, midnight pantry raids and abusive tantrums escalated to criminal damage and grievous bodily harm in a matter of months. It didn’t have to be this way. Government guidelines say that the police should not be used to manage low-level behaviour problems or matters that a “reasonable parent” would not have called the police about. When children go into care, it is invariably because their family situation has broken down. After this happens, the state becomes the parent and is responsible for their welfare. My experience was two decades ago, but criminalisation is still common in the care system.
It is not surprising that about 27% of the prison population comprises care-leavers when practically everyone I lived with in care finished their time with a criminal record. Even though Carter, Lucy and I didn’t know it yet, our behaviour would shape our futures and make lives embroiled in poverty, crime and destitution almost certain.
When I left care, I had already lived at 14 addresses. I would bounce between council flats and bedsits another seven times before I ended up in that tent. Many of the mistakes I have made are my own, but I can’t help thinking that if social services had handled my transition to independence better, if readiness – instead of the arbitrariness of age – determined when care leavers could stand on their own two feet, maybe I would have made something of my life sooner.
When I was 21, I worked a full-time job and took night classes. In 2010, I made it to university. But I couldn’t look after myself. I struggled to budget and keep a routine and was generally disorganised, my attention always anywhere but the present. By the end of my third year, with care support long gone, I was firmly in the grip of mental illness and dependency. My grandparents, to whom I was close, had died over those three years and one of my best friends died suddenly, too; my mother was hospitalised with multiple organ failure; and some of my immediate family members were struggling with substance abuse and were in trouble with the police (one was placed in a psychiatric ward). All of this caused me to withdraw into myself.
Towards the end of my degree, in May 2013, I was in thousands of pounds of arrears and became paranoid about debt collectors visiting me. It was this that made me resort to pitching a tent.
After 18 months bouncing around the hostel system, I managed to pull myself together enough to complete a master’s degree and become a journalist – I have even won a few awards. But if your take from this is that I am living proof that upward mobility is all about grit and determination, then you should know that I am a walking, talking anomaly. Almost everyone I know from the system is damaged. They are off the map, in prison or dead.
Things have not improved. According to analysis by WPI Economics for the charities St Mungo’s and Homeless Link, spending by English local authorities on homelessness-related activity fell by 27% between 2008-09 and 2017-18. During this time, the number of rough sleepers more than doubled.
It is true that people like me are more likely to become homeless at some point in their lives, but the fact is that homelessness can happen to almost anyone. You may have had a perfect paint-by-numbers existence: good schools, straight As, a glowing career, a flourishing social life and a supportive family. Then, one day, you are blindsided by illness, redundancy, a relationship breakdown, a rogue landlord or some other unforeseen circumstance and find yourself on your arse. If we want to end housing insecurity and eliminate endemic homelessness, we must embark on a radical and comprehensive social housebuilding programme.
In the past five years, I have lived in four properties across London. One of those was a temporary placement; in two others, I had to leave due to dishonest landlords. At the time of writing, I am living in another box in south-east London. I don’t have many possessions and the walls of the box remain pasty and bare. Decorating seems futile.
At the back of my mind, I know I can never settle; the next eviction letter is on the horizon and will soon be in my face, propelling me into another frantic race against time to find my next four walls. I worry that I will fail this time, that I will get the letter during a pinch and will have to go through all of this again.
Names and some locations have been changed
This is an edited extract from Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis, which is published on 26 May (Wildfire, £18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Daniel Lavelle will be in conversation with Simon Hattenstone at an online Guardian event on 13 June. Book tickets here