Britain’s hidden homeless and the death of Michelle Conroy

Jobs are scarce, benefit cuts are on the way, and homelessness is on the rise again. In Exeter, where Michelle Conroy died, we meet some of those who are surviving on the edge

They called her “the orange squash girl”. At 21, Michelle Conroy seemed younger than her years. She was well known among Exeter’s homeless people for always drinking squash – rarely alcohol apart from the odd glass of cider and she never touched drugs. In that respect, she was different. Talk to her friends and they’ll tell you that a lot of homeless people, themselves included, can only cope day-to-day by getting high enough to sleep or drunk enough to forget. A lot of them struggle. But Michelle, the orange squash girl, was never like that.

Those who met her remarked on how polite she was – saying please and thank you when a volunteer handed her a free meal at a drop-in centre or when someone made the effort to help. “She was very kind-hearted,” says her friend, Kirsty, 24, who knew her from the Esther Community hostel where she spent some time, on and off, a few months ago. “She was always there if ever you needed to talk to her. She always came to give me a hug. She was the sweetest girl you could ever meet.”

One night last November, Michelle was sleeping in a tent on a grassy embankment by the side of the ring road in Exeter with two male friends. It was wet and stormy – the beginning of the heavy flooding that would affect much of England and Wales through the following weeks – and a large spruce tree was dislodged by the wind. It fell on the tent where Michelle was sleeping. The three were taken to hospital. Her two friends, aged 27 and 35, were injured but survived. Michelle was pronounced dead a short time later.

It has become something of a cliche, when a young person dies, to talk of the terrible waste of a life. Yet in Michelle’s case, the hopelessness of her fate seemed particularly acute. It was an accident, of course, that the tree fell on the tent at that given time. It was a cruel twist of fate that in spite of the fact she steered clear of drink and drugs, her life was still cut short in such an unpredictable and tragic way. But most of all, it was deeply uncomfortable to think of a 21-year-old girl sleeping rough in such bad weather.

Her death touched a nerve. Brief items in local papers were followed up by the national press and Michelle’s story became emblematic of a wider problem. Over recent years, the issue of homelessness had dropped off the news agenda. It seemed to have all but disappeared with the economic boom. Indeed, the number of “statutory homeless” households – those deemed to be in priority need by local authorities – peaked in England at 135,000 in 2004 and had fallen to 53,000 by 2009.

But Michelle’s experience revealed that things are changing: homelessness is once again on the rise. In 2011, the number of people officially classed as homeless in England jumped by 14% – the biggest increase for almost a decade. Across England, 48,510 households were accepted as homeless by local authorities in that year, including 69,460 children. The number of people helped by the charity Shelter’s housing advice helpline, who are either homeless or at risk of losing their home, has increased by 80% in the past three years, while 1.4 million people in Britain are falling behind with their rent or mortgage payments, according to a recent YouGov poll.

The true figures are likely to be even higher. Homelessness is, by its nature, difficult to quantify. People who live on the streets tend to move around a lot and there is no universally accepted definition of what “homeless” means. It is a term that encompasses “sofa-surfers” who stay temporarily with friends or family; those living in poor conditions that affect their health and those living somewhere they cannot afford to pay for without depriving themselves of basic essentials. Most people who are homeless – in the sense of not having a home – do not live on the streets. According to homeless organisations, the economic crisis has created “a perfect storm” of rising repossession rates and unemployment, combined with soaring demand for limited affordable housing and cuts in housing benefit.

“It’s [a problem] getting worse in pretty much every form,” says Toby Lloyd, the head of policy for Shelter. “Being on the streets is only the most visible and extreme form of homelessness, and the number of rough sleepers has dramatically increased already – from autumn 2010 to autumn 2011 rough sleeping went up by 23% in England.

“But more importantly, the numbers are much bigger and scarier in the less visible forms of homelessness: temporary accommodation, overcrowding in shared housing and the most worrying increase has been in children who are homeless. You don’t see those children on the streets.”

With austerity measures continuing, Lloyd says, the situation is likely to deteriorate further. “Overall there’s a massive reduction in the availability of housing benefit, particularly in paying private rents,” he says. “If you combine that with the fact that wages are static or falling, that unemployment is an issue and that private rents are going up, it can only mean one thing.” It means that stories like Michelle’s will become more common.

The place where Michelle died is a steep, grassy verge marked by muddied tyre tracks and sawn-up bits of wood. The tree that killed her was so big that the council needed to remove it in several stages. To one side of the bank, there is a steady stream of traffic. On the other, a shattered brick wall. There is a small collection of cellophane-wrapped flowers and a few rain-blotted cards. One reads simply: “Sorry that Exeter let you down.”

Michelle Conroy was not one of those who had lost her job or had her house repossessed. But she was one of the rising tide of young people who, as a result of increased family breakdown, find themselves existing on the margins of society – the so-called “hidden homeless”. She didn’t say a lot about her past but her friends were able to glean the odd fact. Michelle grew up in Guernsey and for a while was estranged from her mother, who she said had a drink problem. As a child, she was in and out of care. Relations with family members remained strained – those I approached for this article did not respond to my requests for an interview.

The Reverend Canon Anna Norman-Walker, a diocesan missioner at Exeter Cathedral, recalls Michelle confiding that she had “lost count” of the number of social workers she had had. For a while, Michelle lived with a friend at a house in Plymouth but moved to Exeter a few months before she died to be with her boyfriend, Dave Browning, who is homeless. In Exeter, she lived in hostels or slept on the streets. In the mornings, she would often turn up at the St Petrock’s drop-in centre for a cup of tea and a hot meal. Every Friday night, she would go to the weekly homeless community cafe run by Norman-Walker where volunteers would provide soup and rolls. Sometimes, she obviously struggled to make ends meet – in September, she was given a community order after pleading guilty to stealing £368 of perfume from Debenhams.

“She always looked well and was well-turned out,” says Norman-Walker. “She’d be there in her silver Puffa jacket, hoop earrings, jogging trousers, her hair tied-up, often holding a McDonald’s plastic cup with a milkshake in it. She was always with two or three other girls or guys of the same age… People like Michelle, who are lonely, will say: ‘Well, these are my friends… These are my friends so I’ll sleep rough to be with them. Or if they get accommodation, I’ll sleep on their sofa.’ It’s not complex.”

And her friends understood what she was going through. They all have their tales of trouble to tell. Kirsty ended up homeless after walking out of an abusive relationship with a violent ex-partner. One of her children died a cot death; the other two are in care. Lisa, 40, who first met Michelle in a soup kitchen, has a long history of mental health problems and has been sleeping rough for 15 years. All 10 of her children are in care. The streets, she says, are where she feels “safest”.

“Michelle had nothing,” Lisa remembers. “She always seemed to need stuff. It would be, ‘Oh Lisa, I’m hungry. Lisa, I need something’ and I’d always give in…” In the hostel, Michelle didn’t cope well with being around so many strangers. “She was constantly being bullied,” says Lisa. “I always tried to protect her but I think she found people on the streets were more like her family.”

It is a familiar story: many of the homeless people I speak to say that hostel life is fraught and unpleasant after the comparative freedom of living on the streets, especially if, like Michelle, you do not drink or use drugs and are suddenly forced into close contact with alcoholics and addicts.

When Donna Hole, a volunteer at the Esther Community hostel, first met Michelle, she was struck by both her timidity and vulnerability.

“I would probably say she was just lost,” says Donna. “She was very quiet, kind. She wasn’t with her family but she did have a community [among the homeless].”

In fact, a lot of people didn’t realise Michelle was homeless. After her death, her childhood friend Mary Parsons spoke to the local paper. “She was so lovely,” Parsons said. “If I had known she was staying in a tent, I would have told her to come and stay with me.”

But Michelle fell through the cracks. It wasn’t that she was desperate, exactly. Nor was it that she didn’t have other options – she had more than 100 friends on Facebook, many of whom would have offered her a bed for the night. It was more that the systems put in place to care for her after the breakdown of her family hadn’t worked. She didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. She was, as Donna Hole says, lost.

Mel Hartley, the project manager of St Petrock’s, a charity that offers support to the local homeless, says that as a result of money being cut from young people’s services there has been a spike in the number of “quite chaotic young people with destructive behaviour” attending the centre. In 2011, St Petrock’s supported 1,424 homeless and vulnerably housed people and saw an increase in female clients and young people under the age of 26. The charity saw a further 36% rise in the number of people made homeless through loss of employment and family breakdown.

In the absence of a functioning family unit, Michelle laid down roots of a sort among the homeless. “That was her friendship group,” says Norman-Walker. “She thought: ‘I’d rather be with them than with a system where it will be a new social worker every other week’… She felt most at home on the streets.”

She was not alone. Several of the people I meet in St Petrock’s, which operates its daily drop-in centre from inside an old church in Exeter city centre, tell me something similar. Each of their stories is different and yet recurring themes emerge: mental health issues (especially among the women), a background in care, a smattering of domestic abuse, alcoholism or substance abuse, job loss and family breakdown. Eight per cent of St Petrock’s clients are ex-servicemen who have had difficulty settling back into civilian life. While all of those I speak to say they want to end up off the streets and living in their own homes, none of them likes the inbetween stage – the down-at-heel B&Bs where they will live crowded together or the hostels where they feel they can’t trust the other residents and need perpetually to be on their guard.

On the streets, there is a camaraderie of sorts. “There’s little cliques,” says Steve Hampton, 48, who was homeless for three years after losing his job as a warehouseman because of an alcohol problem. He now lives in his own flat and volunteers at St Petrock’s. “The drinkers stick together. The drug-takers stick together. And the ones who do nothing at all stay together.” There were times when Steve felt a curious kind of contentment being homeless, he says. At a period when his life was in crisis, he at least experienced the basic freedom of being able to do what he wanted. A nature-lover, he pitched a tarpaulin down by the River Exe and would go for long walks to Sidmouth and Totnes at the weekends. He used to have a pet robin who would come to the edge of his makeshift tent each morning in search of biscuits. But he says the worst part of sleeping rough – the part that would make anyone want a roof over their heads, whatever the cost – was the weather.

“In the winter, it was a nightmare,” says Steve. “The rain’s worse than the cold. Once you’re wet, you’ve got nothing.”

Currently, most local councils only provide temporary emergency accommodation for the homeless when the predicted night-time temperature is likely to be zero degrees or below for three consecutive nights. There is no provision for heavy rain, even though 2012 was the second wettest year on record, according to the Met Office.

“When you’re wet, you’re screwed,” echoes Sam, 47, who has been homeless for 30 years after fleeing an abusive father. “Then if there’s a high wind, a drop in temperature, it just drives right through you. You can end up shockingly ill.”

Sam, a thin-faced man with long hair and lively eyes, is eloquent when he talks about his condition. “When you’re homeless, you have to put your pride in a bucket,” he says at one point, “because sometimes, if you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat out of bins.”

For a while, Sam was sleeping on a piece of cardboard in an Exeter car park: “Oh God, it’s exhausting… Some people are constantly exhausted to the point where they can’t even eat. It’s a vicious cycle: one feeds the other. So when you go to the benefits office or those kind of authorities, council offices or somewhere like that, they don’t take into account [the lack of motivation]. [They’ll say] ‘Why were you late signing on?’, not realising that it takes half an hour to walk five minutes.

“You’ve got to sleep with one eye open. You get your head down ideally by 10pm and then you’re up at seven in the morning and in that time, I tend to go under about three in the morning. I’ve got one eye open for the duration. The way I explain it is like an elevator stuck halfway up the shaft. It never goes fully up or down.”

Unsurprisingly, many turn to drink or drugs. “I have a drink,” admits Keith, 50, who has been homeless for seven years. “You need it to sleep sometimes. You get tired, you can’t sleep. You get…” He pauses, crinkling his eyes as if searching for the right expression. “It’s not scared… it’s…” He stops. “A nice tot of whisky helps you out. Most drinkers have nothing to get up for. It gives you something to look forward to.”

Another homeless man in Exeter begs in order to manage a £10 a day heroin habit – just enough for a £5 hit in the morning to get him through the waking hours and a £5 hit at night to send him to sleep.

Even when you are lucky enough to get off the streets, the sleep deprivation continues. At the moment, Sam is living in a B&B and trying to hold down a regular job. “At first, sleeping in a bed is incredibly uncomfortable and painful because your spine is used to being straight,” he says. “Also, your joints start to really hurt badly because they start to repair themselves.”

On the streets there are the other things you learn: how to live without electricity, where to go for free meals, where the best places are to sleep (away from main roads which tend to attract drunk and sometimes violent people at night) and remembering to carry your stuff around with you all the time so that it doesn’t get stolen.

“That’s a pain,” says Robert, 47, who has been homeless for nine months, “because you get stuck [with your rucksack]. The worst place is HMV. It’s terribly difficult because I love going in there looking at the new films and music that’s out, but it’s obvious you’re homeless.”

Robert is a boyish-faced man wearing a hand-me-down knitted cardigan patterned with diamonds provided by St Petrock’s. He is typical of the new wave of homeless people created by the economic crisis. Robert used to run a flourishing home maintenance business in Essex. The business had been in his family for three generations. When times were good during the housing boom in the early 00s, he “wouldn’t get out of bed for less than £1,000”. He would advertise his services in the local paper and get three or four weeks’ worth of work from one classified.

“I always lived to the maximum of my money. I never really saved… I’d always lived beyond my means because credit was so easy. I was opening balances of £70,000 on a card. And once you got one, you got [a new] one every two months and you got used to living on credit.”

Then the recession hit. By 2010, the business was dwindling. The same classified advertisement in the local paper resulted in “two waste-of-time calls a week”. The business died “very rapidly”. After eight months, Robert had lost everything and was cleaning caravans on a camping site in Holland. He lost that job because he didn’t get on with the owners. “It’s difficult working for people unless they’re nice,” he says. “Especially when you’ve been working for yourself.”

Robert came back to England and, in his own words, “fell off the ladder. I don’t have a deposit [for a house] and it’s difficult to get a house with housing benefit because landlords don’t like it. Basically, I’ve got £71 as a job seeker [in benefits] but I’m never going to get a job because the address I’ll use is the one here [at St Petrock’s] and employers know what that means.”

For the foreseeable future, Robert will be sleeping rough.

They have seen a lot, this thrown-together group of survivors – Lisa, Kirsty, Robert, Sam, Keith and Steve – but Michelle’s death affected them deeply. Kirsty found out when it was reported on the local news. Lisa was only told when someone asked her if she was coming to the funeral. The two of them had begged Michelle not to sleep out that night, but “she wanted to visit her friends”, says Lisa, in tears. “And she never came back.”

They have their memories of her – sitting in the TV room in the hostel in hysterics; singing songs at the top of their voices (Michelle had a particular fondness for Carly Rae Jepsen’s catchy hit Call Me Maybe). Lisa went to leave a Christmas card at the place where Michelle died and thought she heard footsteps behind her.

“I always expect her to be here when I get back and go upstairs,” Lisa says, wiping her eyes with the cuff of her tracksuit top.

Sam says that when Michelle died, the homeless community at St Petrock’s “spoke of her like they’d lost a family member, like they’d lost a sister”.

A few days after her death, Rev Norman-Walker led a service in remembrance of Michelle at the Friday night cafe. There was a book where friends could leave their condolences and many members of the public who had been moved by Michelle’s story turned up. Later, there was an informal memorial gathering in the grounds in front of the cathedral. A local busker played Donovan’s Catch the Wind. One by one, people spoke about how they were feeling and what they remembered of Michelle, the quiet girl in the silver Puffa jacket who always said please and thank you and knew all the words to Call Me Maybe.

Back in the hostel, sitting on the sagging cushions of a grey sofa, Lisa is crying. It has been hard for her to speak about Michelle but she has wanted to do it because “I just want people to know she wasn’t a down and out… She didn’t choose her way of life. Life chose her.”

And, in the end, it wasn’t enough of a life. Not for a 21-year-old woman who hadn’t been given the chance to start living. Not for any of them.

*Some names have been changed

Many homeless people look like you and me

Mel Hartley is project manager at St Petrock’s drop-in centre in Exeter, where Michelle Conroy was a regular visitor. Here she talks about producing the organisation’s annual report:

“We wanted to get away from that often gloomy image of rough sleepers with a blanket on a bench or in a doorway. Although that is a physical side, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of homeless people look like you or me – you just wouldn’t know it.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone and everyone’s story is different. In the portraits of rough sleepers, we wanted to be truly representative of that and it was most important to us to capture their strength and resilience as well, to give them back their dignity and individuality. I think what comes across in these photos is that they are real people.

“Rough sleeping is dangerous and people tend to slip away out of sight. When it came to photographing the sites where they sleep, we were interested in showing the lengths some people go to to build a temporary home and also to portray what homelessness means.

“A friend of mine put me in touch with the photographer, Ruaraidh Monies. He had just finished his photography degree and wanted to do some charity work. We were really lucky because he’s great.

“Generally our clients hate having their photographs taken but once we’d done a few reports, people were happy to support us because they could see we were presenting them in a positive way. Ruaraidh still pops in now and then to our drop-in sessions and sees if anyone wants to have their picture taken.”

*All the subjects in this project have asked not to be identified by name © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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