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Review of ‘Roofless’ by Stewart Harvey

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Approximately 320,000 people are homeless in the UK and the number is increasing, according to reports last year from the country’s leading homelessness charity, Shelter. This number is not far off the entire population of Iceland. In other words, it is far too many.

Often people assume that when we refer to a ‘homeless person’ we mean someone sleeping outdoors on the street, but Shelter’s definition of homelessness is much broader than this, suggesting that we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the figures.

Homelessness includes rough sleepers (those that are outside or in a place not designed for habitation, cars for example), adults and children in temporary accommodation, and those living in homeless hostels.

We hear a lot from politicians, charities, think tanks and the media about the stats and facts and this draws our attention to the scale of the problem. What stats and facts don’t convey, however, is the complexity of homelessness on a human level. What’s missing is the voices and experiences of homeless people themselves. How has someone ended up homeless? What disruption has taken place in their lives to result in where they are now? What’s the impact of them constantly living each day with uncertainty, fear and danger?

This is where Roofless comes in. This book is a powerful series of short stories compiled by First Stop Darlington, a charity in England committed to supporting those who are, and those on the verge of becoming, homeless. 

This beautifully designed book offers the readers an insight into the lives of seven individuals who have experienced homelessness. Each chapter is a result of an interview the author held with every one of the seven and includes extensive quotes on what the harsh reality is of homeless living for many. At the end of each chapter, there is a short section on ‘present day’ updating the reader on the successes and failures of those whose stories have been told. 

In contrast to the aesthetically appealing cover of the book the stories told are harrowing. The interviewees recount tales of early childhood abuse into adulthood, excessive drug use and poverty. No easy read.

‘You think your dad is going to be there to protect you from the world. My father began abusing me in childhood from the age of four up to the age of fourteen, both physically and sexually. It still impacts on my life today.’

Lifted from Gina’s story, this may be a difficult read but it does get the heart of some of the issues. To me, this highlights one of the recurring themes from the book: that the effect of childhood experience of abuse and neglect can last a lifetime and can negatively impact a person’s health and prospects. We know from studies in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that the links are clear.

‘I lost count of the amount of times I ended up fighting, forced to protect myself after being picked on for being homeless.’

Taken from Martin’s story, his account of abuse and becoming estranged from his alcoholic father is captivating and eventually leads him to become homeless at a young age. In and out of temporary accommodation, his own health suffered as he started to abuse alcohol himself. Despite his fortunes changing for the better (he gained access to benefits), he lost his life at the age of 33 due to sclerosis of the liver. His comment above speaks volumes about the hardship of homeless living and the physical vulnerability attached to it, not to mention the stigma.

‘My choice of partners has more often than not been disastrous.’

In Emma’s story, we hear about how her volatility in personal relationships has a damaging impact resulting in her serving repeated jail sentences. Although her story is bleak, there is a message of hope in here. Cut to the present day and Emma describes her new relationship as ‘promising’ and she is in stable accommodation for the first time in 20 years.

It is no coincidence that the publisher of this book is the Arkbound Foundation, a rather brilliant social enterprise that aims to empower people and groups who are often overlooked and marginalised by society, using writing and journalism as a tool to both aid their recovery and reintegration. Powerful stuff. The charity is based in Bristol but is extending its operations to Scotland through its Glasgow office.

Roofless is only 60-pages long and is an ideal thought-provoking read for anyone with a couple of hours to spare, maybe on a train journey.

The book reminded me of the importance of hearing and understanding the voices of those that have experienced homelessness, in order to make informed decisions about where support is needed.  

It also made me think of the therapeutic value of writing and communicating about difficult experiences as a means to aiding both recovery and increasing society’s knowledge of the difficult subject matter. Another example of this being Scotland’s Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari which gives a voice to the ‘underclass’ (a term I hate, but you know what I am getting to) and explores Scotland’s poverty gap. This is exactly why we need publishers like Arkbound to champion a new generation of such writers. 

Overall, the stories within Roofless are powerful to read and it makes you reflect on the complexity of homelessness in the UK. Although at times challenging, it does leave you with the sense that, with the right support in place, some of the outcomes could have been different and the road to recovery is possible. 

Mike Findlay is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. His interests include equality, mental health, and social justice.

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