Homeless man slept behind railway station during Storm Desmond while holding down a job

A former homeless man has spoken of how he camped behind Sheffield railway station for months as he aims to help others sleeping rough.

Chris Royston, aged 43, spent six months sleeping rough in Sheffield city centre in 2015, including during the vicious Storm Desmond which caused strong winds, heavy rainfall and flooding.

Now he is trying to help others in the city who are still without a home.

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Last month he helped send a virtual petition to Downing Street to secure funding for local authorities to tackle homelessness.

Former homeless man Chris Royston at the stteel steps behind Sheffield train station where he used to camp. (Picture Scott Merrylees)

Chris was born in Barnsley and first made homeless aged 25 after a death in his family led to the breakdown of his family home.

After sofa surfing with friends for two months, he was offered a bed at St Anne’s shelter and walked 16 miles through the night to Sheffield to claim it.

In 2015 Chris became homeless for a second time, despite being in full time work in a supermarket. He said because he has autism, without support he failed to keep on top of his rent and council tax and fell into debt.

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Chris said: “When I became homeless for the second time the council said I wasn’t in priority need, I was working and I could solve it myself. They didn’t have any obligation to rehouse me.

"I was homeless through lack of support rather than lack of income. It was during Storm Desmond. Trying to put the tent up, I was pulling the tent with both hands and it was like I was being pulled by the wind.

"It would bite my fingertips and my feet. I was getting trench foot. It felt like my feet were burning, every step was excruciating.

"I camped above Sheffield train station. I put my bike in the bike hub with my tent and sleeping bag. I cycled six miles to work for a 12pm-10pm shift five or six days a week and then cycled back to the city centre.

"I was pretending to be a customer at the station. I would secure my bike and sit at the platform until the station shut and then I pitched my tent out the back and would try and get some sleep.

"You could never really settle down - there would always be some noise that would make you anxious.”

Chris got in touch with housing charity Shelter who liaised with the council and explained that if he remained homeless he would likely lose his job.

Now living in Darnall, Chris has left Shelter’s support services, but was determined to give something back.

Chris said: “Shelter contacted me and said they were doing a petition to get people off the streets and get them vaccinated (against Covid-19), and they said they would like me to lead the campaign.

"The petition gained 29,000 signatures and we were supposed to deliver it to 10 Downing Street on December 16. We were told a day before that it would have to be handed in virtually because of Omicron."

One in 50 deaths of homeless people in 2020 were related to Covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Chris said: "On December 20, Shelter got a phone call to say that the government was going to give local authorities across the country £28 million, and councils would have an obligation to rehouse every individual over the winter.”

The Protect and Vaccinate scheme will aim to help to increase vaccine uptake among people who are homeless and sleeping rough.

Despite the new funding, Chris is concerned that not enough is being done to inform Sheffield’s homeless that help is available for them.

He added: “When I have gone through Sheffield over the last couple of days I see people on the streets.

“If we can turn a blind eye to adults today then the children of today who have suffered the pandemic and lost on a year of school will be in the same situation. When are we going to wake up as a government and as a society and say enough is enough?”

Sheffield Council said its winter plan was keeping ‘those who sleep rough safe from winter weather and the risks of the pandemic’ and it was a top priority.

Coun Paul Wood, executive member for housing, added: “We applied for £102,000 so that we can offer them accommodation and support for extra staff to help them come into and remain in accommodation. So far, we have placed 49 people who sleep rough and we welcome the continued and much needed financial support from government for this.

“The government also gave us £266,000 to help us protect and vaccinate those who sleep rough. £30,000 of this was to help with vaccination costs and the rest for accommodation.

"This work was already underway as part of our plan and the additional funding will help us continue to find and make offers of accommodation. Our successful multi-agency group working is helping to safeguard and encourage vaccine uptake in people who sleep rough.”