I was born on the south side of Glasgow. I was heading for a life of crime in my teens because I was in with some bad people. After a brush with the law, I headed as far south as I could go before I hit the sea. I ended up in Brighton.
I didn’t have money or a job and I couldn’t get into a hostel, so I slept under an upturned boat on the beach. In the morning I’d get up, tuck my rucksack inside the boat and head off to find work. I picked up work in nightclubs. Cash was king back then – I could get work cash-in-hand and it helped set me up. After six months, I managed to save enough to put down a deposit on a bedsit and open a bank account. That route to gaining financial independence no longer exists for homeless people. You can’t get paid in cash, which means you need a bank account before you can get work. The cashless economy is another big problem for homeless people.
When I had my own place and money coming in, I had something to defend, some ambition. I started a photography business because I was interested in it. I went to a bank in Brighton city centre. They gave me a loan for equipment and enough to rent a small studio, despite the fact I had no security. The bank manager even came to the opening. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t put his trust in me. I would have drifted back into crime.
I went on to set up another business, though that ran into difficulties in 2012 and I spent most of my savings keeping it alive because I felt a duty towards the staff I employed. Around that time, I began helping homeless people who had started appearing all over Brighton. I ran a winter project giving out rucksacks filled with toiletries, socks, jumpers and with sleeping bags attached. I decided I wanted to give something back. But it put a huge strain on my marriage at a time when my business was on the rocks. When my marriage ended, I was effectively homeless again, so I slept on my warehouse floor.
In 2016, I decided to close my business and use the warehouse space to open a food kitchen to feed the homeless. We’re called Sussex Homeless Support and we became a registered charity in October 2017. The office is manned by homeless people. Besides feeding and homing people, we run peer-to-peer mentoring, offer financial advice about benefits, fill in forms and try to get them back on their own feet. I can do this effectively because I know what it’s like to be homeless. I understand them and I understand the system.
Bank accounts are crucial but it’s hard to get one if you’re homeless. There are still too many hoops, even though we can use our office as a registered address. I have a client right now whose benefit is being paid into my bank account while we work to set him up his own. The authorities are prepared to pay benefits into a nominated bank account if they receive the correct details. It’s perfectly legitimate, but it can lead to problems because often other homeless or ex-homeless people share one and fall out or they get taken advantage of.
In addition, people regularly come to us without ID and it’s always a battle. I have sorted this out hundreds of times – we go online to order birth certificates and help buy new driving licence cards if they’re lost. There are no shortcuts and often these things incur expenses. And then, because they lead chaotic lives with drug or alcohol issues, they go and lose the new ID. I have another client who hasn’t made a benefit claim in 11 months. He lost everything he owned, including all his personal documents – birth certificate, national insurance number and driving licence. He used the office address to open a basic bank account with HSBC UK and he’s sorting out his life now.
There’s a revolving door of homelessness. You get them off the street for a few days or weeks and they end up back on it because it’s so complex to live when you’re at rock bottom.
I live in a council flat now and take no salary from the charity. Nobody had a good word to say about me once. Now they do.
As told to Mike Pattenden
HSBC UK is working with local housing and homelessness charities to provide bank accounts to people without a fixed address, helping to break the cycle of financial exclusion. To find out more about this, and what else HSBC UK is doing to support local communities, visit hsbc.co.uk/togetherwethrive