It’s precisely 9.20am and I’ve already been up for four solid hours. Not only have I been up, but I’ve left the house, done a massive lap of the city centre, and had breakfast; not bad for a woman who struggles to make her 10am daily start. The reason for my early rise? I’d been invited to get stuck in with the Framework Street Outreach team’s early morning round, making sure Nottingham’s rough sleepers are as well as they can be.
I arrived at the Framework centre in Bentinck Road at 4.45am, wearing all the clothes I owned, plus my boyfriend’s hat. I was greeted by Jason, a proper friendly chap who’s been working for the charity for the last thirteen years. “You awake, yet?” he joked, as he shook my hand, seemingly unphased by the arse crack of dawn or the nip in the air.
Moments later Kasha arrived, fully decked-out in waterproof trousers. “It’s gonna rain,” she announced.
We hopped in the car, Jason at the wheel and Kasha checking reports of rough sleepers the charity had received in the night, from both the police and the guys who manage the CCTV in the city centre, and making a mental note of priority cases we needed to check out. It wasn’t long before we made our first stop in Forest Fields, under a concrete awning, where a young man was asleep on cardboard boxes and huddled beneath a duvet.
Jason and Kasha apologised for waking him, and it turned out he was someone they hadn’t seen for a while as he’d just finished another stint in prison. They handed him a card with the Framework freephone number on, said sorry for waking him again, and off we went.
“We’d love to go round handing out tea and coffee all morning,” said Jason, when we got back in the car, “but we just don’t have the funds. Everything’s being cut; the council is stretched, and it’s services like this that suffer.”
The same thing happened with a guy who was sleeping in his car, and someone bedded down around the Castle area, and the purpose of the outreach team started to become glaringly obvious. Yes, Kasha and Jason were there to keep track of the number of people who were rough sleeping in Nottingham. Yes, they were there to talk to people about missed appointments and get new faces involved with services that are there to help them. But they also serve as a reminder to those who find themselves so ostracised from the rest of society, that there are people that care, and will be there to make sure they’re OK. It reminded me of my mum poking her head round my bedroom door before she went to work after I’d been on a night out; just making sure I was still there.
Both Kasha and Jason know each of the rough sleepers by name, their medical concerns and complaints, mental health history, and personal details about their lives. One woman we found sleeping with her partner in a car park even addressed Kasha as “Keesh” when asking about her next housing appointment. I wanted to know if there was an element of friendship between the outreach workers and the people they help.
“There can’t be,” says Jason. “I’ve seen some of these people in and out of the system for the last thirteen years – some of them since they were very young – so obviously you build up a connection, of sorts. But we have to maintain a distance and we have to remain professional. We see all sorts of people with all sorts of problems: drug addicts, sexual offenders, people who’ve been on the streets for so long they don’t know any different. We have to remain impartial to all that, otherwise we won’t be able to help them.”
“It can be frustrating when you see someone who has been repeating the same cycle,” adds Kasha, “but all we can do is keep helping them, to let them know that we’re always there when they need us.”
Kasha is an invaluable resource to the front-line team. Having worked in hospitality before answering Framework’s callout for a Polish-speaking outreach team member, she’s been with the charity for a year. “You know when you find where you’re meant to be? I didn’t even realise it before, but this is it,” she said.
We met one very young guy asleep in a car park, shivering on a cardboard box wearing just a hoodie. He was clearly scared and wary of us when we woke him and, assuming we were there to move him on, began hastily scrambling for his things. He didn’t speak much English, so Kasha began talking to him in Polish, and was able to reassure him and hand him a card. She wasn’t hopeful that he would be in touch, though. There’ve been rumours circulating the rough-sleeper community that Eastern Europeans will be deported if they access services.
Jason began his career with Framework on their housing maintenance team, working his way up to team leader, and then transitioning to become team leader of the outreach team. His experience is vast, as is his knowledge of the system that seems to be failing so many. Problems with universal credit, benefits being distributed in bulk amounts – in turn feeding drug addictions – and, perhaps surprisingly, the generosity of the general public.
“There’s no way people can get clean and break the cycle when they’re handed £40 in a few hours by passersby,” Jason told me, and I began to feel really guilty. I’ve always given money when asked, and though deep down I knew there was a chance that some of those people would spend that money on drugs, I don’t think I fully understood the cycle that I was contributing to.
We came across a very polite young man named Jack* bedded down with his dog in a tunnel. As we approached, it was obvious that he’d been using. He pulled up his trouser leg to reveal a dressing, that he said hadn’t been changed in three months, to show us an abscess caused by excessive heroin use.
Jack was provided with housing by Framework last year, but began making the journey into town to beg to fund his addiction. Soon, he was rough sleeping three nights a week, fell into arrears, and found himself right back where he started. It was heartbreaking to hear, and even more distressing to see.
“The fact is, homelessness doesn’t directly cause begging behaviour, but begging can and does cause homelessness,” Jason told me.
We met one good samaritan on our morning round who was keen to tell us how he frequently delivers food and money to the rough sleeper population before he heads to work. I found myself holding back the urge to tell him to stop, that he may actually be causing more harm than good. Jason and Kasha just smiled at him, made no comment, and got on with the task at hand.
The morning was eye-opening, emotionally draining and confusing in equal measure. There were difficult questions raised as to how best to help, but from the comfort of my bed, with a hot coffee and a thick slice of peanut butter on toast, it feels quite patronising for me to try and offer any answers. But, if there’s one thing I have to leave you with, it’s that charities like Framework offer vital front-line services to extremely vulnerable and isolated people, and if you happen to have a spare couple of pound in your back pocket, you should lob it their way.
If you want to help Framework continue the work they’re doing, get involved in their Big Sleep Out on Saturday 18 November. Head over to their website to find out more.