As Simon on the Streets prepares for its big fundraising event of the year, former rough sleeper Jamie Ross takes Sarah Freeman on a tour of Leeds few others see.
Jamie ross knows exactly where the best spots to sleep rough in Leeds are.
There’s the alleyway, just a short walk from the railway station, which is always warm thanks to the giant vents blowing hot air from an underground car park. A bit further on there’s a back street which is a sun trap during the day and deserted at night.
“The security guard was always decent,” says Jamie. “Some of them take great pleasure in moving you on. Not this guy. He’d always let you sleep, so long as you moved on before the office workers started arriving. It was good round here, the fire escape gave you a bit of shelter if it rained and you were out of the way so no one bothered you.”
It’s a few years now since Jamie spent his last night on the streets - March 5, 2007 to be exact. The date is etched on his memory.
“That’s when I had my epiphany. I woke up that morning in Beeston. A few weeks earlier I’d been arrested for robbery with violence and had a meeting with my probation officer. I gathered up my worldly belongings, which amounted to an old PlayStation and a pair of socks. I looked at them and just thought, ‘is this it?, is this what you want to be definite by?’ It wasn’t and I told myself from that day I would never use heroin again’.”
Jamie is now operations manager at Simon on the Streets. He’s openly proud of the title, partly because a few years ago the only thing anyone ever described him as was a homeless drug addict, but it’s also because he’s working for the charity which he credits with rescuing him from despair.
“While I describe that day as an epiphany, the truth is Clive had been planting the seeds for months.” Clive is Clive Sandle, director of Simon on the Streets, who for a while was the only regular and stable presence in Jamie’s otherwise chaotic life. “At first he would just say hello and then eventually he bought me a cup of tea and we started to chat. I’m not sure I ever saw him as anything so formal as a support worker, but that’s exactly what he was.”
Wandering the city’s streets, identifying rough sleepers and then working with them over weeks, months and in many cases, years, is a formula which has served Simon on the Streets, founded in 1999 and run ever since without a penny of Government money, well.
The charity is also the reason why we’re wandering around Jamie’s old haunts while the rest of the city is making the most of the warm summer’s evening packing out the bars and cafes. Next month it will hold its annual sponsored sleep out. It’s always been the biggest fundraising event in its calendar, but this year, as well as individuals, it is hoping to attract more corporate teams.
“It’s all about changing perceptions,” says Pixie. She slept on the streets at the same time as Jamie and with his help also subsequently turned her life around. “I remember one day when I was just sat reading a book and some bloke came up and kicked me in the head. As soon as I stood up, he apologised. He said he didn’t realise I was a girl. I’m not sure really what difference that made, when you’re homeless there are people who stop seeing you as a human being.
“Everyone on the street is someone’s son and someone’s daughter. Sometimes people forget that.”
Jamie, who grew up in York, says he fared a bit better on the streets. Naturally outgoing, he turned begging into art form and he became a familiar figure to weekend drinkers who poured in and out of Tiger Tiger.
“I was a bit of a comedian,” he says. “I was good at begging, but there was nothing very funny about my life.People end up on the streets because they’ve experienced a significant trauma. My parents split up when I was quite young and my dad, who had always been a bit of a hardman, drank a lot. There were a lot of things from my past that I hadn’t dealt with.”
“When you’re asked at school what you want to be when you grow up, no one puts their hand up and says, ‘I want to be homeless’. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s just something that happens when you get unlucky.”
For a while after leaving school, life was good for Jamie. Working as an electrician’s mate he soon had his own car, flat and a girlfriend he describes as “simply lovely”.
“I was just a working class lad from a working class family. It was the 1990s and as a teenager I spent most of my weekend on raves where I started taking LSD. It was an escape. That’s where it all began. To come down from the drugs, I started taking heroin. I didn’t even really know what it was. I just knew that it worked.
“At first it was confined to the weekend, but then I started using on a Wednesday and before long it was every day of the week.”
From there, Jamie’s decline was rapid. He lost his job and his girlfriend and with no income, his flat and car soon went the same way. He went first to Ibiza, but when that didn’t work out he found himself back in Yorkshire, heading to Leeds.
“I’d caused a lot of trouble over the years. I couldn’t go back to York, too many people knew me,” he says as the sun sets and the streets begin to look less inviting.
Many of the places Jamie used to rest his head have been locked up. He understands why, but can’t help but see it as further evidence of a system concerned with ticking boxes rather than effecting real change.
“I get why businesses don’t want rough sleepers in their doorways, but moving people on isn’t a solution to the problem. It’s the reason why we can’t be government funded. Those services that are have to justify the money they get, they have to be able to show results within a certain time frame.
“It’s impossible to quantify in simple economics what buying someone a cup of tea means or the long-term impact of emotional support. We know the difference it makes, but it doesn’t fit on spread sheet. You can’t unravel a whole lifetime in the space of six months.
“I am proud that I had a part in helping Pixie sort her life out, but the biggest moment for me is that first time someone opens up and tells you something that they have never shared with anyone before. At that point you know you have a foundation, you know you have something on which to build.”
Jamie says he has rebuilt the bridges he burned with his family, particularly his mum and has talked openly with his father about the impact his drinking and behaviour had on him as a child.
Tonight he will go home to his girlfriend, “a mental health nurse from a nice middle class family”. Life, he says, is good, but every day working at Simon on the Streets is a reminder of just how it can all unravel.
“Every story is different,” he says. “But the one thing about every one you see begging or sleeping rough is that they would rather be somewhere else, somewhere safe, somewhere warm. They might be in denial, they might be unable to think straight because of drink or drugs, but ultimately they are just people like you or I.”