Prison is a common precursor to homelessness. Sadly, so is the care system. Rebecca Cox was 17 when she found herself on the streets after a life in Staffordshire care homes.
“The pathway just wasn’t there,” she says, “so in the end I ended up sleeping rough.” The back of the old bus station was the place she called home. “As a girl,” she says, “it’s hard being out on the streets. I used to think sofa surfing was being homeless, it’s nothing compared to sleeping in doorways. In a doorway you’re a lot more vulnerable. There’s a lot more people around.”
Eventually, Rebecca headed to Manchester, forced out of Stoke-on-Trent, she claims, because the city was over-zealous in its use of the Vagrancy Act. “It meant anyone sitting down on the floor begging or sleeping was in an illegal position,” she says. “We were getting warnings, people were getting arrested. That’s why we ended up having to go to Manchester.”
Not that life 30 miles north was any better. “I’ve been urinated on and spat on,” recalls the 25-year-old. “There’s been people coming out of clubs starting fights with us - you get people shouting abuse. “In Manchester they didn’t like you sleeping on main roads. Well I didn’t like sleeping in backs alleys where there’s no lights, no cameras. Anything could happen – and it does.” ‘Legal’ highs again form a part of Rebecca’s tale. But thankfully, she has managed to turn her life around.
Again, Manna House has offered calm amongst the storm. “Places like this are absolutely amazing,” ponders Rebecca. “It’s places like this that make you still believe in life, where there are people who care about you. Even if we don’t want something to eat, even if we just want a chat and a whinge, they’re so nice. No matter what state your head is in they sort you out. I feel back on track now. I’m a hundred per cent more happy.”
“I’ve seen the looks that homeless people get and it’s no wonder they feel like they do sometimes. They’re in a bad enough situation as it is without people looking down at them, looking at them like they’re dirt.” Originally from Leek, Gary Lovatt is 45 – “I look about 65 some days!” – and a spiral into addiction left him homeless.
“The lifestyle was violent and chaotic,” he says, “drinking, taking heroin, methadone, and diazepam. People say you don’t look like a drug user, but what is a drug user? How do you define an addict? What do they look like? There’s people in high places who have addictions but they hide it well, they deceive people well.”
Gary describes his descent thus: “Drugs, loss of job, breakdown of family, committing offences, prison, nowhere to live, back in, back out.” Narcotics cost Gary everything - home, relationships, and freedom. “The only people that seem to be bothered is the church,” he says. “There are other places that do a good job but the church does everything. This place offers more than food – it offers hope.”
This place is Manna House, at Hanley’s Baptist Church, which offers food, shelter, and common human warmth to those whose lives have been turned upside down. “When on the inside the waves are going like crazy, what I find here is absolute stillness. That’s what I get from this place.” For sure, it is heaven compared to the conditions on the streets he has endured.