Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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First person: Christopher Ubsdell on his new home

June 04 2014
He was homeless for 14 years. Last month he signed his tenancy on the flat he hopes will be his first home. She must have been in her late 60s at least, and she had clearly been on the streets for a long time. I don't think she ever told me her name, but even if she did, this encounter took place amid a haze of soup runs and day centres and therefore has been lost among the fog of my first time on the streets.

It was 1997, and I was almost 14 years old. She told me she would like her life to end. The streets had got to this lady.

I never saw her again but it changed the way I thought about mortality. That was the year my grandfather died. It started me thinking about my own death, and I still was when I signed on that infamous dotted line, across the road in the army recruiting office, years later.

I’ve always moved around a lot. After completing my army training in Northern Ireland, I moved back to England to do my Phase Two training, but I left by mutual agreement.

My daughter was born the following year but I was too drunk to realise the significance of that day. I would leave my partners house and sleep rough, drink, be merry, and return. Alcohol – it’s the reason I’ve found myself on the streets time and again, in trouble with the law and several times, in jail.

Eventually my partner got frustrated with this behaviour, and we parted.

The pattern continued, and though I’d slept rough since 1997, it never got easier. I always used to use alcohol to numb the pain and loneliness.

I heard lots of horror stories over the years. A friend told me about the police call to Blackfriars Bridge, where they had to use buckets of warm water to pour over the hand of a homeless person who had frozen to death one winter, his hand stuck to the concrete.

Aside from the weather, the other danger is other people. You can't count on the general public to be sympathetic to your plight. You feel very vulnerable to them when you are horizontal and wrapped in a sleeping.

I moved from street to hostel, to family and back again. And eventually, I heard from my ex-partner. She told me that if I quit drinking, I would be able to see my little girl.

This was the turning point. I lay in a darkened room in my by-then privately rented flat in Sheffield, and drained a bottle of whisky to its half-way line. I thought long and hard. Then fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, I poured away the remainder of the whisky.

I didn’t go back to the drink. But getting contact with my daughter wasn’t as easy as planned. After more time on the streets, I found a bug-infested bed-sit in Lambeth and begun the fight for my daughter with the help of my solicitor. With the collapse of my case for contact, I left the bed-sit and travelled to Sheffield once again, where my family welcomed me into their arms as they had always done.

But it wasn’t enough, and so just before Christmas I found myself heading back to London for 'Crisis at Christmas', and laid myself at their mercy.

A week later, I found myself at my old pitch in Belvedere Road. It always amazes me how I could sleep just across the river from the centre of government in one of the richest nations on earth, a country whose army I had once joined, and nobody would be surprised.

But it was now my army service, short though it was, would come to be very important. I made a break-through discovery; a 2010 bill that amended the Housing Act 1996 and now states that, former service personnel are to be given priority on council housing registers.

Armed with this new information I came back to London in March 2014, the bill having passed into law in January. Lambeth Council took me onto the housing register on the basis that I had spent the two years there, and had no local connection anywhere else. I was now in band B and could bid on properties as they came up.

Cut to last month. I go to see a flat and it’s in good order. I decide to accept the offer but have to wait another day to get into my new home. I spent the next 24 hours too excited to sleep and walking the streets of London, until I can come back and sign my tenancy agreement.

And before I know it, the papers are all signed and the keys to my first ever council flat are in my hand. My body immediately relaxed. My mind calmed. I began to think about all those years of so called independence on the street. The soup runs, the people, the day centres, the golden cigarette ends, the winters. I looked at my sleeping bag beside me. I must admit, I nearly cried. I had been awake for 48 hours. But tonight I would sleep well.

It started to rain yesterday. But I don't care. It can rain, hail, snow, whatever. I'm inside tonight you see. I'll be inside now for the foreseeable future. When you’re out and it rains, you have to either try to get dry or sleep in your wet clothes and shiver. Now I can just remove my wet cloths and hang them on a radiator.

I have three to choose from in the flat.

I also have a fridge. And my very own washing machine. It’s so sweet because when you are on the streets you have two options when your clothes are dirty: either go to a launderette which is really expensive or go to a day centre, where you have to sit around like a lemon in a dressing gown waiting for your clothes to be ready. Here I can just open the door of my own washing machine and put my clothes in there whenever I want.

When I wake up tomorrow, it will not be in a wet sleeping bag. It will be on my own sofa bed. I will not have to walk for 10 minutes to get to a bathroom, but just cross the room.

My fridge. My sofa. My new flat. My life.

I have had many a strange and difficult experience on the street and in the old life of transit, and living out of a bag. The future is still uncertain but if I can move to help those still out there, then I’d like to. It may help me come to terms with the climate of fear I've lived in for so long. I have so many ideas of how to change the way things are. And I'm in a unique position to have discovered these answers first-hand.