Graham McEvoy walks into the Crisis offices where we are meeting wrapped up against the cold. It turns out that these layers – a couple of t-shirts, a shirt, jumper, suit jacket, trousers, shoes and socks, and warm jacket – are all the clothes he possesses.
He has arrived early so that we can start the interview immediately because he doesn’t like being in this area of east London when it is dark. It’s a stark reminder of how frightening life on the streets must be.
Like many homeless people, Graham never expected to find himself sleeping rough. He had a job in Cornwall but in February 1998 gave it up to move back into his elderly parents’ maisonette in Ruislip, west London, to look after them.
A couple of years later both parents went into a private nursing home to recuperate after breaking their hips. They remained there until they died and then the nursing home reclaimed its fees by serving an eviction notice on Graham.
“I took a suitcase, thought ‘where can I go’, and went to Heathrow airport. It was the only place I could think of at the time that was warm, had lots of people and there are places to wash and shave. With a suitcase you look like you fit in.”
He lived there for seven months. By the end he was on first name terms with some of the airport police. In May 2003 he returned to London and that winter he spent a lot of time riding the night buses. While doing this he noticed how few people were sleeping on the steps of All Saints Church on Regent Street, so he decided to move there.
Another rough sleeper told him about Crisis Open Christmas – where shelters are opened around London from 23-30 December providing companionship, essential services, learning opportunities and entertainment to homeless and vulnerably housed people. He spent Christmas 2003 there: “It saved my life over Christmas by keeping me warm and dry, with three meals a day.” ITV’s This Morning contacted him after he did an interview with a magazine and in June 2004 they started filming him.
Last September, Graham was accepted into a Salvation Army hostel, but his hope that his luck had finally changed soon started to fade.
He says: “You apply for a job or try to get a bank account but you are always asked for your address and it says Salvation Army hostel which has a stigma about it. People think of drug takers, wasters, alcoholics. I couldn’t get a doctor and at the bank the woman I spoke to said ‘we don’t want your sort here’.”
The edition of This Morning was aired in February 2005 and for the next three months Graham spent nearly every day in the programme maker’s offices using its computers to apply for jobs.
Finally, he secured a day’s training at a bank, but on his way there he was turned away by police – it was 7/7 and the bombs had detonated. It was the final straw for Graham, who was beginning to feel that he was not much better off than when he was sleeping rough.
A few days later he decided to go back on the streets. The date – 12 July – is etched in his mind because he views it as the biggest mistake of his life. Now Graham is again sleeping on the steps of All Saints, facing a daily grind of seeking out food runs; scavenging for food thrown out by shops; smoking butt ends; looking for newspapers so he can do the crosswords; travelling on buses when he finds a bus pass; and hoping people will be generous – since This Morning he is often recognised.
He has applied for another hostel place and is waiting to hear. Several times during our conversation he says he has let down a lot of people, and it is clear this weighs heavily. He has a wistful air about him.
After being helped by Crisis Open Christmas in 2003, he went back as a volunteer last Christmas while he was in the hostel, but this year Graham will return as a guest. He doesn’t want to speculate about where he will be next Christmas, but says: “If I get a second chance I’m not going to cock it up again.”
“From the age of 11 I was a speed freak. My mum was a drug addict and my stepfather was a weekend binge drinker.” Listening to Jamie McCoy’s softly spoken voice it is difficult to believe he is talking about himself.
His calmness now belies a childhood with no structure and a house “like Piccadilly Circus”, and there are no obvious signs of the ravages that can result from more than 30 years of drug addiction and homelessness.
At 15, Jamie ran away from his Birmingham home and headed for the bright lights of London thinking it would change his life. It did, but for the worse. By the time he was 21, he was a heroin addict and homeless.
Stretches in prison for stealing to fund his drug habit were interspersed with spells in and out of hostels after he was caught using drugs on the premises or not paying rent.
He was so high on drugs that he watched his best friend collapse and die in front of him and “just thought he was taking a nap”. When he realised what had happened he started to think about changing his lifestyle.
It took another 18 months, but then, at the age of 48 and just before Christmas, Jamie had a “mad half hour”. “I had a sort of epiphany on Blackfriars Bridge and threw my last bag of heroin into the Thames and thought ‘enough’. My first real Christmas that I can remember is doing cold turkey instead of eating it.”
That was five years ago and he hasn’t looked back. Illiterate after not finishing his education, Jamie was taught to read and write by a Jesus Army volunteer who sat with him on the streets two nights a week. Since then he has had his poetry read out by actress Sheila Hancock at a Vivaldi concert last year for St Martin-in-the-Fields church, which cares for homeless people;
he has written a children’s book about a mouse that learns to read and write; and he set up his own web-log about homelessness for the general election (www.jamiesbigvoice.com), which is sponsored by Crisis and Hansard and is still running.
Two and a half years ago Jamie moved into his own flat on Old Kent Road in south London. “My life is totally different. I can wake up in the mornings now and look at myself in the mirror and I like myself.”
He would like to be employed, preferably in the homelessness and addiction sector, but feels his age – 53 – is a hindrance.
Reconciled with his mother just before she died, he feels no bitterness towards her. He says: “She said I had done something she couldn’t do – kick the drugs. She did the best she could do in the situation she was in.”
This Christmas Jamie will spend three days volunteering at Crisis Open Christmas, before celebrating it quietly with friends. “I have a life that people would envy,” he says. “I don’t think about drugs any more. I have a different circle of friends, everything in my flat is my own. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
Despite living in hostels for the past four years, which makes her technically homeless, Yvonne Powell exudes positivity: “I don’t think of myself as homeless because I have a roof over my head. I have a radiator, hot and cold water and food. I get so many people feeling sorry for me but I think I’m lucky. I’m better off than three-quarters of the world, which is shocking.”
Yvonne, 31, became homeless in October 2001 after she left a violent partner. Her name was not on the tenancy agreement of their Suffolk home and she had nowhere to go. She could not stay with her mother in Newcastle because she was living in a flat that she had acquired through a homeless charity and it would have breached the tenancy agreement.
“She was very upset that it was all happening to me too,” says Yvonne.
Yvonne phoned the council’s homeless helpline and, when it became clear there was a risk of violence, she was told to stay by the phone until the woman’s aid refuge called and arranged to collect her. She stayed at the refuge for a month but then decided that other women needed the bed more and moved to a hostel in north London.
The hostel had more than 200 rooms and must have felt unsafe with so many comings and goings, fights, drugs, and regular police visits. “During one fight, a guy got on the phone and said his friends were going to come with guns,” she says.
“People from all parts of the world lived there, running from awful things and then they get there and have to deal with this.”
In May 2002 Yvonne moved to an all-women hostel with just 23 rooms. Laughing, she says, “Although at times it was just as mad, it was all very educational.”
Three-and-a-half years later, Yvonne is still there. At first she found a job as a receptionist at a firm of solicitors, but when they were closed “quite dramatically” by the Law Society she was made redundant.
She dislikes the tag “long-term unemployed person” that is now attached to her and it is clear that her main focus in life is finding a job, perhaps in a museum or art gallery to tie in with her interests.
Days are spent looking for jobs in the morning at Working Links, a public-private partnership set up by the government to help long-term unemployed and disadvantaged people into jobs; using Crisis Skylight, which offers free practical and creative workshops – Yvonne sings and is learning to play the guitar; and volunteering at an Oxfam shop and the Handel House Museum.
Yvonne’s mother has bought her a train ticket to Newcastle so they can spend Christmas together. As for next year she expects to find employment, saying, “I’m more concerned about not working than living in a hostel.”
Yvonne has not had the easiest of years: after undergoing a termination, she admits her mental health “went downhill”. Yet her outlook remains upbeat: “So many people start seeing themselves as the issue, partly because they are treated like they are good for nothing and then they believe it. You have to separate the two – homelessness is a situation you are in, it’s not who you are.”