Homelessness in Cambridge: The Tab meets Nathan
In the second of a series of interviews with the people sleeping rough around Cambridge, JAMIE WEBB meets Nathan
I meet Nathan on a cold and bright January afternoon. He’s sitting outside Sainsbury’s on St Andrew’s street.
The most striking thing about him is his silence.
He barely moves, face buried in a John Grisham novel. It’s this silence, he later explains, that guarantees him no hassle from the police.
Nathan has lived here all his life. “I’m Cambridge born and bred, 48 years.” I ask him how he came to be sleeping rough.
“My marriage broke up. I was married for 20 years. It came as a bolt out of the blue, I didn’t realise anything was going wrong.
“When I first met my wife she had her own flat so I moved into hers. When she got pregnant with my boy we moved into a house, did an exchange from one to the other, and I just never bothered putting my name on the tenancy.
“So when she decided she didn’t want to be married anymore I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
“I was out on the street, did a few weeks homeless and then went to Willow Walk, the homeless hostel.”
But now he’s back on the streets.
“Of course, since then it’s all gone pear-shaped.” He pauses, and takes a breath.
“Last year I was working as a hod carrier, carrying bricks. I had an accident at work, and done my knee. I went into hospital for three weeks, came out and signed up for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance).
“For this you have to attend medicals every so often. I had a relapse on my knee and ended up back in hospital.
“While I was in hospital I got an infection, and ended up staying there for 9 weeks. In between those 9 weeks they’d sent me a letter saying I needed to go to a medical. Obviously I didn’t go because I didn’t know anything about it.
“Then they sent me a letter asking why I didn’t go to the medical. Because the date to reply by had passed by the time I was discharged from hospital my claim had been stopped. My rent and housing benefit had been stopped, and I got evicted from Willow Walk. I’m now waiting for a room at Jimmy’s.”
Even though this was not Nathan’s fault, government moves slow.
“I’m in touch with Outreach, waiting for a medical. That might be about 3 weeks. Then I have to wait for an answer from that before getting my money, and that might be about 6 weeks they say.
“Its £230 a week for a room in Willow Walk. Because they kept my room open while I was in hospital I’ve ended up with £1000 in rent arrears- even if I go to Jimmy’s I can’t get back there. There’s a couple of Christian organisations I can go to but you can only get to them through Jimmy’s.”
He goes very quiet. Remembering this hasn’t been an easy experience. I change the subject. Does the council do enough? He thinks for a moment.
“They do a cold weather scheme. If it drops below zero for three nights on the trot, Jimmy’s and seven churches will open their doors.
“They put a mattress on the floor for you and you have to leave by half 7 the next morning, but you get a meal every evening. But you still have to be on benefits to access it.”
And this winter has been especially cold. “I’ve been bloody frozen. I wake up damp every morning. I can’t get warm, I’m freezing now.”
It’s two in the afternoon, as hot as it will get all day, but he’s shivering. Nathan sleeps in the Drummer Street public toilets.
“I’ve got one fella who’ll let me stay for a week for 20 quid which is what I’m trying to get together now, it’s just getting it together that’s the problem. I’ve been here a couple of hours and got a quid.”
“Sometimes its pretty good and you can get a bed for yourself in a couple of hours. Other days you can barely get a meal at the end of the day. You get tarred with the same brush because a lot of people think every beggar is out here to get money just to get their fix, but that’s just something you have to put up with.”
And how’s the book? “Yeah, I like John Grisham. I’ve read a lot of his stuff.” We briefly discuss the film version of Runaway Jury, which did indeed, as we decided, star John Cusack.
Nathan then has to leave. He has an appointment at the doctors for his knee. He has to ask me the time to ensure he doesn’t miss it.
I hope Nathan gets together the 20 pounds he needs for a bed for the week. He’d got a couple more by the time I left, but being homeless is expensive, and that’s not enough.
His story shows how grueling homelessness is to get out of, but how terrifyingly easy it is to fall into.
As I write this piece later that night, the temperature outside drops to just above freezing. It’s a macabre reality that for Nathan, it would be better if it was just a bit colder.
Compassion in Cambridge only kicks in at zero.
If you want to help people like Nathan, donate to Shelter.