Meet Frank. He turns 62 two days before Christmas, and has travelled to over 20 different countries, but you may recognise him as the man who has slept on the corner of Regent Street, in Leamington Spa, for the last six years. Having spent a decade in the town, with more than half of this on the streets, Frank has seen the impact of social change brought about by multiple pandemic lockdowns, and generations of students. I sat down with Frank over a hot meal where he spoke to me about his interests, how he ended up homeless, the failures of Leamington town council to house rough-sleepers, and his candid experiences with locals.
Like many rough-sleepers’ stories, Frank’s is a sad and frustrating one. He was born in London, and spent time in Gloucestershire before moving to Leamington Spa for a job twelve years ago. Six years in, he describes how suddenly he was “unloading a lorry, when I had a pallet dropped on me, and I was badly injured so I spent a few days in hospital for surgery.”
He sighed and continued: “I was staying at a B&B at the time, and when I came back after a few days, they had thrown out all my stuff and taken my ID, so I couldn’t get another job or move elsewhere.”
The difficulty of maintaining important documents whilst homeless means that many rough-sleepers are refused temporary accommodation or bank accounts across the UK on the basis that they cannot prove their identities, or ethnicities. More importantly, how do rough-sleepers get to have a say in policies that affect them, if voting itself is completely inaccessible?
The barriers that restrict homeless people from voting are the exact same barriers that restrict them from finding temporary shelter to help them get back on their feet
In September 2023, the UK government passed the Voter ID legislation which regulates that voters have to provide a form of ID in order to take part in local elections. This policy has been heavily criticised by both housing non-government organisations (NGOs), and Labour politicians alike who argue that this will disproportionately affect the unemployed, those with disabilities and ethnic minority communities.
They just want us to go Birmingham, and move the problem away. They can’t be bothered to deal with the problem in Leamington
The Electoral Commission found that at least 14,000 eligible voters were turned away at national ballots in May. The barriers that restrict homeless people from voting are the exact same barriers that restrict them from finding temporary shelter to help them get back on their feet.
On this, Frank spoke about how homeless organisations such as the Salvation Army and P3 Housing reach out, but he describes how they don’t necessarily attack the issue of homelessness at its roots, and instead comments on how “they just want us to go Birmingham, and move the problem away. They can’t be bothered to deal with the problem in Leamington.”
He added: “Before Covid, there used to be loads of homeless people, but most of them have either died or gone to Birmingham. There’s only four of us left who are actually sleeping outside. There are probably more out there who just couch-surf.”
A deeply stigmatised issue that is often masked in pre-conceptions, homelessness in the UK has risen by 10% this year, with Shelter England estimating that there are over 271,000 rough-sleepers on the streets.
Determined to strip away these preconceptions, I asked candidly about Frank’s vices, and whether he felt people assumed certain ideas about rough-sleepers. On this, Frank described how “there’s four other rough-sleepers I know in Leamington, and I spend time with them because let’s be honest, no one else wants to hang around with us.
We are the easiest victims, and we get used to it
“They see you sitting there, and they think you’ve done something wrong. The fact that I’ve worked in 20 different countries; India, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya, and a lot of Europe doesn’t matter.”
I remark: “Wow, you’re incredibly well-travelled, more well travelled than me!” He laughs and says “You’ve got plenty of time.”
Frank expressed his disdain for both Warwick students and Leamington locals, explaining that on a regular basis, he experiences “constant verbal abuse, the usual things: we get called alchie, scumbags, and I just respond: “I don’t drink you prick”. We just get the blame, if the locals have had a shitty day, they’ve got to take it out on someone. We are the easiest victims, and we get used to it.”
Focusing more on the physical and mental anguish of being homeless, I asked Frank about specific incidences he’s had with students and locals, and he went onto describe how people have kicked him in the back whilst he’s asleep, or “students who are drunk sometimes ask if I’m really homeless, and I can’t respond over their laughter.”
He poignantly commented on how: “whenever someone attacks a homeless person, the cameras are always pointing the wrong way, but if a homeless person does anything, there’s every camera in the world on them.”
Although I was unsurprised by Frank’s negative experiences, I was frustrated because homelessness is often referred to as a cyclical issue, or ‘The Churn’. In order to break this cycle, people-centred policies that concern lack of bank accounts, postal addresses and ill mental health need to be implemented.
Yet when asked about the policies of Leamington Spa Town Council, Frank said “We aren’t very high on their agendas, and it doesn’t matter if they’re Labour or Conservative.”
He added: “I heard that 10 years ago, a girl wrote to the Prime Minister about the homeless situation in Leamington, so he agreed to come. The day before, apparently the Town Council moved all the homeless people off the parade and disposed of their stuff.” He stopped and laughed: “So obviously when the Prime Minister came the next day, there were no homeless people to see!”.
I’ve been on the social housing waiting list for four years now, and there’s only four other homeless people I know, so I don’t know what’s taking so long.
Speaking to Frank about his potential options, I ask about social housing, and making money off selling The Big Issue, a magazine published across the UK that helps homeless people make 50 percent of net proceeds sold.
Frank replied on these issues: “I’ve been on the social housing waiting list for four years now, and there’s only four other homeless people I know, so I don’t know what’s taking so long. I receive 170 pounds a month in benefits, but in this cost of living crisis, it doesn’t last long, especially because I don’t have a kitchen so I have to buy a lot of ready made meals.”
I remember Frank from when I was in my second year of university and living in Leamington, because I would occasionally buy the Big Issue from him, when I had cash on hand.
Unfortunately, as Frank points out, “nobody carries cash anymore, so I stopped selling the Big Issue. After the first lockdown, that’s when everyone decided to start using cards, and we didn’t have card readers, they still don’t have card readers. I bought the issues, but I couldn’t sell them and they couldn’t be returned. Usually, you have to buy the big issue at half price, so they cost £1.50, and sell it for £3.
“Before the lockdown, I was selling 20-30 issues a week, but after the first Lockdown, I sold five issues in 3 months – I made 15 pounds in three months, so I stopped because there was no point anymore.”
He pauses and looks up from his cheeseburger, and asks me why I care. I was taken aback because it was a good question, and a valid one at that.
After reflecting for a few seconds, I responded: “I wanted to give a voice to those who don’t necessarily have one. I don’t think it’s fair at all that you bear the brunt of a broken system, and the half-hearted solutions provided by the council just aim to hide you away. The issue needs to be confronted face-on.”
Perhaps interviewing Frank will draw attention to the issues in Leamington Spa, and maybe students won’t be so quick to ignore him on the parade anymore.
My final question to Frank was whether he wanted to say anything vicariously to students, and he responded with a light-hearted request: “Many of you will see me reading on the parade, if you have any spare books, feel free to drop them off. It helps me fill up my days”.