Homelessness in Cambridge: The Tab Meets Sarah

In the first of a series of interviews with people sleeping rough around Cambridge, JAMIE WEBB talks to Sarah about her experiences of homelessness.

Cambridge Features Homelessness interviews

Many of you will recognise Sarah. She can often be found outside Wagamama on St Andrews Street. Opposite her is Emmanuel College. In 2006, its fixed assets were calculated as worth £110,350,941. Just a few yards away is Sarah, and she is homeless.

‘I got arrested the other week for just sitting here. I asked for the time and a bit of change, and now I’m waiting for a summons to go to court. We get a rough end of the deal.’ She’s been arrested for begging. If she gets prosecuted it will be a £70 fine.

And if she can’t afford to pay?

‘Well, I’ll have to come out here and do it again.’

Sarah.

Sarah.

Sarah used to live in Colchester. ‘I’m adopted and it got a bit hard. When I fell pregnant, I went to live with my real mum and my adopted mum and dad got very upset about it.’

‘I went through a really bad post-natal depression. My son went to live with my mum and dad. Then I got married and then I found him doing something on the floor with another man, with my kids upstairs. My head’s screwed at the moment. This is why I’m out here, to get away from everything. A lot of us are out here just to get away from their problems, but you’ll find some are just doing it for drugs.’

‘Some people want to help themselves and can’t get a foot up. You cannot get a job unless you have somewhere to live. But you can’t afford to get somewhere to live without a job. I get £84 a week in benefits, it’s nothing.’

Without missing a beat she asks a passer by if they can spare some change. ‘No, can you?’, he replies. ‘People can be shit’, Sarah says.

Just before I stopped to talk to Sarah a group of men took a photo with her. They were a stag party who wanted a photo kissing a homeless woman for a bet. They left her 5 beers in return.

St Andrews Street, where you're most likely to see Sarah.

St Andrews Street, where you’re most likely to see Sarah.

Her husband joins us. He’s schizophrenic, has just come out of prison, and is begging on the opposite side of St Andrews Street. It’s hard not to get the impression that things were easier for him on the inside.

‘I’ve got 7 O Levels and 3 A Levels’, Sarah says, ‘so we’re not all stupid. You find most of the homeless people around here have qualifications, its just the paths we took. I’ve been clean now for a year, but I was on heroin for 20 odd years.’

She’s been in Cambridge since 2001. In that 13 years she’s never had meaningful employment or a stable home. She had a flat, but she was evicted. She doesn’t say why.

She says that the push to remove people seen begging is a recent phenomena. The police give you a summons, and the court gives you a fine. ‘They don’t help to do anything. My partner who’s just come out of prison has got no help at all.’

‘The system has failed him at the end of the day, that’s what I’m pissed off about. He does have a flat, but it’s covered in mould and it’s disgusting. You can’t even sleep in the bedroom because of the damp and the council haven’t done anything.’

So much of Sarah’s story is unclear. Sarah is banned from Jimmy’s Night Shelter, but as with her eviction, she doesn’t say why. She says she is trying to get money to stay in a B&B, but why if her husband has a flat? Do her children still live with Sarah’s parents? Is she getting any support from the council?

One of the few resources Cambridge has for those people sleeping rough.

One of the few resources Cambridge has for those people sleeping rough.

This is only one side of the story. But the fact remains that Sarah has lived in this city without a proper home for 13 years, and she’s still on the street. Whatever the Council is doing, in this case, it hasn’t worked.

And it’s getting cold outside. 3 years ago I travelled down for my interview on a day when icicles were hanging from trees and my bottle of water froze solid. Sarah, and those like her, were sleeping rough that winter, the winter before that, and they’ll be doing it this winter as well. They are all too often invisible. They have voices, but they’re rarely heard.

This piece has tried to change that for one person. There are many more out there in the city that we live in. The Tab will be trying to conduct more of these interviews in the coming weeks, so that you can put lives to the faces you see every day.

If you speak to someone who’s fallen on hard times in Cambridge, let us know by emailing     [email protected], so you can help tell their story. Stay safe, but if you ever see Sarah or anyone like her, stop and talk. They’re part of our city, and we’ve ignored them for too long.

And if you wish to help people like Sarah across the country, consider donating to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.