The dedication in Just Bea reads:
Dedicated to those who are or have had experience of being homeless. You matter.
This message from me, Deborah Klée, the author, is heartfelt.
I was inspired to write Just Bea following a morning when I walked into work over London Bridge. I noticed a young man huddled against the wall. He had a Mediterranean look and as I took in his appearance, I saw all of the people he might have been. I imagined him as a tour guide entertaining my husband and me on a holiday excursion, as a favourite son telling stories of his adventures to a family party over an alfresco lunch, as a boyfriend declaring his love to an adoring partner – trying to find the right words to impress. I saw him as anything other than a homeless man because he was. That was just a circumstance that could happen to anyone of us. It wasn’t who he was. I can see you, I wanted to say.
Further along the bridge that morning I observed a woman approach an older man and just caught her words, ‘Tea or coffee?’
I had always wanted to offer a hot drink to people living on the street. To walk past with a steaming takeaway coffee when a person had spent the night in the freezing cold and needed it more than me, felt wrong. But to be honest I was afraid to ask. My husband told me that my offer would be rejected and I risked verbal abuse. I was also self-conscious; I didn’t want to attract attention to myself or come over as patronising.
That morning, I ran after the woman. When I caught up breathless, I asked her what her experience had been offering to buy a hot drink for people living rough.
‘My offer is always received with thanks. Not everyone accepts but it is appreciated.’ She encouraged me to follow her example. From that day on I have. Before the pandemic I would regularly buy a drink or snack and sometimes just talk to people living on the street. These encounters did help to inform Just Bea but that is not why I did it.
There are many reasons why a person might become homeless. Whilst plotting Just Bea I did a Google search to find out about people’s experience of becoming homeless. Ryan’s story was drawn from this research. You will have to read Just Bea to find out, but his experience reflects real life.
Sometimes people make assumptions about homeless people.
‘Why are you homeless?’ she blurted out and then blushed.
He turned to face her. ‘Not because I’m a junkie, although that’s what you thought. Or a wino.’
‘I didn’t think that for one moment.’ But she had.
‘Or because I choose to live on the streets. That’s the other one – they’re happier there. Who in their right mind would want to sleep out in this crappy weather?’
From Just Bea
Interview with Caroline Bernard from Homeless Link
I invited Caroline Bernard from Homeless Link to talk to me about her experience of working with people who experience homelessness.
Could you tell us about the organisation you work for and your role?
Homeless Link is the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England. We work to make services better and campaign for policy change that will help end homelessness. My role is Head of Communications and Advocacy and I look after traditional and digital communications, campaigns, and public affairs.
There are lots of myths and misconceptions about how people come to be homeless. What is the reality?
The reality is that homelessness is not inevitable, and can happen for a number of reasons. The most common reason is the ending of a shorthold tenancy, and there is also the impact of welfare, poverty more widely, and multiple disadvantages that contribute to homelessness. Rough sleeping is the most visible form, but homelessness takes many forms, for example staying with friends and family (so-called “sofa surfing”), living in poor quality temporary accommodation, and being in transactional relationships where somewhere to stay is exchanged for something else, which is where exploitation can take place.
How can we best support homeless people? Is it okay to offer a hot drink and/or food? What about giving money?
Giving a hot drink, food and money are very much down to individual choice. We have recently published a very helpful toolkit with various sections that the public can take to contribute to ending homelessness https://www.homeless.org.uk/help-end-homelessness. Each section has a downloadable document that gives more details and links to relevant organisations for further information.
How have homeless people been supported throughout the pandemic?
People experiencing homelessness have been supported in a number of ways. The Everyone In initiative by the government last March brought an estimated 5,400 people into emergency accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs.
Following this, the government announced the Next Steps Accommodation programme in July 2020, which was a funding round for local authorities to bid for short-term funds for resettlement and recovery of people who have been rough sleeping and were brought into emergency accommodation. 274 local authorities received funding through this programme.
Homeless Link also administers the Winter Transformation Fund for MHCLG with Housing Justice to help community and faith-based providers support those at risk in their local areas, and we have just announced the latest round for the 2021-22 financial year https://www.homeless.org.uk/connect/blogs/2021/apr/07/homelessness-winter-transformation-fund-202122-is-announced
What are the risks to people living on the street?
The risks to people living on the streets are many. There are clearly safeguarding issues, and these have been made all the more acute by the pandemic. Women are at particular risk when sleeping rough, and as mentioned above often find themselves trapped in abusive relationships where they may be forced into exchanging a bed for physical relations, also known as “survival sex”. People living on the streets are also at risk of early-onset frailty, indeed evidence shows that the key indicators of frailty are present in younger people living on the streets.https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/HCS-05-2020-0007/full/html
Useful links for further information?
Our Help End Homelessness toolkit is a good place to start https://www.homeless.org.uk/help-end-homelessness and for more information about Homeless Link’s work visit homeless.org.uk
I hope that this blog inspires you to find ways that you can support homeless people. Just Bea is a heartwarming and uplifting story despite the serious subject matter. I have tried to make the experience of Ryan and others living on the street authentic. I would love to hear your views.
Available as an ebook all providers: https://books2read.com/JustBea
Amazon for paperback: UK https://amzn.to/39HPPvt USA https://amzn.to/33Gw0B0
2 thoughts on “Understanding Homelessness in Writing Just Bea”
I can identify with your wanting to help but also being self-conscious about it. I always wanted to interview the ‘trolley men’ of Barcelona when I lived there. These men recycled other people’s unwanted household items, pushing them around the city in shopping trolleys. I always wondered about their stories but was afraid to ask. Someone else did and there is an article about them in the Guardian I think.
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That sounds like a fascinating story. I don’t know why we are so self conscious. It may reflect the barriers we create distancing ourselves from homeless people. You only have to do it once and then it feels natural.
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