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Faces of Cambridge: Giving the homeless a voice – a series

Part I: ‘Angel’ Aro, former Marine and recent victim of an unprovoked assault

This series of articles seeks to break the ignorance bubble surrounding homelessness and encourage people to reconsider how they think about and behave towards the homeless. We want to transform people’s perception of the homeless into individuals with their own pasts, hopes and dreams, defined by more than their situation.

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Aro, known by his ‘street brothers’ as Angel (“we class ourselves as family out here”) arrived in Cambridge in June. When he returned from his last tour of duty in Syria, he found himself homeless.

His wife had run off with another man, taken his kids with her and sold their house.

Angel has served Britain in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and like many other veterans on the streets, has been left without financial nor emotional support. Angel said: “The government here…they say thank you for your service, off you go.”

When he returned to the UK, he found out his sisters were living on the streets in central Cambridge, so his first instinct was to come here to look out for them. He said: “Never been here before in my life, until June – and then all of a sudden I’m here and I’m sleeping in a doorway. As long as they’re out here, I’m out here.”

The ‘real’ Cambridge

We asked him about his thoughts on Cambridge as a city. He replied: “Cambridge is interesting. It’s like I say to people, there’s the Cambridge that the tourists see, and people who live here see, and then there’s the real Cambridge, which is nasty. It’s nasty, it’s vicious, that’s why I’ve got this damage to me.”

We were horrified to learn that Angel was the victim of an utterly unprovoked assault on Halloween night, which also happened to be his birthday. He has a broken nose, cuts above his eye and in his ear, a dislocated thumb and a fractured eye socket.

“A total random guy walked past me and kicked me. So, I got up and I’m like, what the hell was that? Next thing, I’m on the floor and he was pounding the hell out of me. A group of five or six guys got him off me, he then went round them and went at me another seven or eight times, ‘til a second group turned up and I ended up with a semicircle of men stood around me.”

Lack of support

We asked him if he receives any support from charities or the local council, to which he responded bitterly: “We get zero support out here. Not just because of assaults, but homeless get nothing.”

He explained that in most other cities, the council take responsibility for the homeless, but in Cambridge, they are told to go through Jimmy’s, the main night shelter. Angel said:You end up with a room that, if I laid down lengthwise, my head would be against the door and my head would be against the back wall. And I’d have to curl double to fit widthwise. You’re put in a room with someone you’ve never seen before in your life, with whatever issues they have."

He mentioned another shelter called ‘2-2-2s’: “We actually have to pay to stay in there – how do they think we’re gonna get the money?"

Winter fears

“My sister Luna thinks this winter is gonna kill her… because they reckon this is gonna be coldest ever. Last winter was nasty. I mean, I wasn’t in Cambridge last year… but at least eight homeless people died. They’re predicting even more this year", Angel said.

It is clear that there needs to be a basic level of provision for the homeless, whether that be from charities, the council or otherwise. When people are dying on the streets because of the cold, it becomes a human rights issue, and the community has a responsibility to address that. “We get told there’s blankets, sleeping bags, coats gloves… we see none of it, and yet they’ve got £27,000 pounds to repave the market.”

‘We’re invisible out here’

Angel has been on the streets in multiple cities in the UK, as well as in America and Russia. He said: “It’s the same everywhere, homeless people are invisible. There’s a man I know, he used to be a professor at King’s College. He’s now living in a doorway, his own former students walk past him as if they’ve never seen him in their life and yet they’ve got jobs and careers, because of that man.”

He implores that people make more of an effort simply to connect and empathise, which he values far more than material generosity: “We say even a smile, a good morning, a good afternoon – if someone stops and talks, even better. People seem to think we’re out here, just wanting money.”

Look out for Angel next time you’re out and about in the centre, and say hello. Remember that being homeless can be horribly, unimaginably lonely; just a smile or a quick chat could make someone’s day.