Faces of Cambridge: Giving the homeless a voice – a series
Part 4: Darren; a Big Issue seller, arson attack victim and homeless by choice
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.
You've probably seen Darren selling the Big Issue outside Sainsbury's. Have you ever spoken to him? Probably not. You should! He's a lovely, kind and open individual. Next time you see him, say hello and introduce yourself.
I recorded a conversation with him last week about his story, how he ended up in Cambridge and his experience of being homeless – unusually, Darren actually chooses to live homeless because he prefers the nomadic, outdoors lifestyle.
Living as a nomad
Darren explained to me why he prefers to live life outside and on the move.
"I decided to start travelling again this time last year… so I came down to Cambridge and cos I sell the Big Issue it's easy enough for me to travel about. I just picked a new place and thought I wanted to go see somewhere different.
"It's how I prefer to live. I much prefer to be outdoors… the sound of the birds in the morning, the animals, the fresh air.
"On and off now, ten year, like this. I thoroughly enjoy it. It's a great way of living. I know it's not for everybody, especially when it's cold, it's wet, it's miserable. And the amount of work you have to put it to keep up a camp, getting your firewood, your water, all that stuff, it's not for everybody… but for me, it seems to be the best way I can live because it's keeping me the healthiest I've been in years."
Selling the Big Issue
Darren truly loves selling the Big Issue; it's not something he has resorted to out of desperation, but something he chooses to do because he really enjoys meeting new people (and dogs!) and seeing something different every day.
"I love it. I've been doing it on and off for years, while I've been travelling and it's something I thoroughly enjoy. I meet lots of people, dogs, all sorts… it's great."
"You don't know who's gonna stop and buy. And I'm shell-shocked by some of the people that do sometimes, cos sometimes you think 'Christ, you must have less money in your pocket than I've got', and they'll still be generous and buy one. And people like that, I love. For people like that, it's probably a proper sacrifice."
He isn't sure why, but out of all the cities he's worked in, Cambridge has proven to be the least profitable!
"With regards to Cambridge and selling the Big Issue, out of all the places I've sold it, this is probably where I've made the least money. I'm selling roughly the same amount of magazines, but making less money."
Last year, Darren was a victim of an arson attack. He lost all of his possessions.
"Well, my camp got burnt. I live on a field in Stourbridge common, it's a farmer's field. There was another guy stopping on the field… and he had a camp set up over the other side. And he got himself into a homeless hostel. Due to the state of his mental health – I presume – he came down and burnt his own tent out and then burnt mine out, just destroyed everything.
"There were gas canisters exploding. One of the gas canisters missed a five-year-old child by about four feet, and the couple that actually saw the guy walking off and told me about it were terrified, cos it was their nephew."
Darren is full of praise for the support networks in Cambridge, and appreciated the help he got when trying to get back on his feet.
"Since then, the local community have been fantastic and the wider community has been fantastic.
"I've had an amazing amount of support from the Cambridge Church's Homeless Project, Lee, the Big Issue coordinator, from Winter Comfort and from the general public where I'm living. They've all been fantastic, rallied around to help me get set back up. This chap from Mountain Warehouse gave me a new tent!"
A refreshingly positive view of attitudes in Cambridge to the homeless
I asked Darren about attitudes towards homeless people in Cambridge – financially the most unequal city in the UK – compared to other cities in the UK.
"Most people are pretty aware these days of homelessness. It's not as hidden as it used to be."
I asked him whether he has experienced more snobbery and prejudice in Cambridge, and his response was perhaps surprising but refreshing to hear.
He thinks that this is actually something of a myth. "There's plenty of people that ignore me, but they're not all students, a lot of them are just working people or people out shopping."
That said, I have certainly spoken to individuals who have endured hate and prejudice, and attribute that to Cambridge.
Ultimately, every homeless person has their own individual story and personal experience of sleeping rough. It is important not to generalise.