Russell Monk is a former police officer, who served in Leeds. After struggling with mental health problems, he left his job and ended up sleeping rough. To help get back on his feet he has sold The Big Issue in Exeter and London. This is his account of how failings in the systems let some people fall through the cracks…
I am writing this article in relation to my experiences, which led me to become homeless in London nine days before Christmas. Basically I have been made homeless by the systems in place. I have no drink or drug issues.
Five years ago I was a serving police officer with West Yorkshire Police. My beat was Leeds city centre. I spent two years studying Police Studies at Huddersfield University. Having learned wonderful policies and ideas about the way the police should operate and the root causes of crime, I found the real world of policing was nothing more than a revolving door of issues with no real direction when it came to solving the problems.
I found that most of my colleagues were disheartened and most were counting down to retirement. I remember one colleague had a clock counting down as his screensaver.
The theories I learned at university about crime could also be a root cause of homelessness
The theories I learned at university about crime could also be a root cause of homelessness. Broken windows theory is the idea that crime evolves through a gradual process – if a window in a street is broken and not immediately fixed then further windows will become broken as people start to lose interest in the community. Small anti-social occurrences happen, this then leads on to more serious offending until it becomes a crime zone. The ideal is not to police an area once it has become a problem but to fix the window in the first place.
Labelling theory states that if a person labels another person then the person will start to act in a particular way. A child who has been called lazy or stupid will not learn from this and will not start to do more or study harder but in fact will adopt the label given to him.
So if you call someone bad, they will continue to act badly. Call someone a thief and they will continue to steal. Identify someone as living off the dole and they will continue to claim benefits. You have taken away their self-respect and placed them in a box from which they will find it nearly impossible to escape because once you are on the bottom rung of the ladder it is very hard to rise up.
This can be seen in the class system of today and the consequences are not just for that person but also their children. Generations and generations of families have lived in the same class for hundreds of years. How many of the people with high standards of living today have actually earned their lifestyle? For most it has been luck, by being born into the right family, given a good education, having inherited money etc.
I am only saying this because of the way I have been labelled whilst working on the Issue. I remember one lady handing me a pound and telling me so proudly how she was already looking after two others, like it was adopt-a-dog week. I smiled and was polite but inside I was dying to ask her how her wealth had been acquired, because apart from shopping I couldn’t fit her in any job. I expect someone was also supporting her and I feel that if all her support was taken away she would be asking to borrow my pitch within a week.
Without real support everyone ends up homeless
I’m saying this because the root cause of the problem isn’t the fault of the homeless. They may have made bad decisions in life but without real support everyone ends up homeless. I know this because I have gone from being a police officer to finding myself in that position. I left the police on health grounds after being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. The reason for this was stress. Every day I was dealing with difficult issues whilst working in the police. It was like a poison, every day being exposed to negative things.
Over time you either develop a hard shell or you become depressed. You lose hope, then you lose empathy, that is why most people think police officers are cocks. Police officers are as human as everyone else but when you are exposed to shit all the time you become hard. It is the same with criminals, soldiers and anyone else. When you deal with problems that have no solutions you become quickly disinterested. The police-crime relationship is a cycle and it continues to go around in circles producing pain for all concerned.
I learned at university that in the 1970s there was a trial to give heroin addicts heroin instead of methadone. This trial was very successful – the addicts started taking control of their own lives, got jobs and settled into normal society – until Maggie stopped it. Think about it, if an addict gets their drugs in a controlled way, there is no need to scurry around all day committing crimes in order to pay for drugs – £1000 of crime for £100 of drugs equals a lot of victims and a lot of resources used to combat the problem. And of course, all the other things that sprout from it – homelessness, mental health issues – maybe that is the window that needs fixing.
I have never heard of a film star, musician or any other high-profile drug user with money spend his day committing crimes just for the sake of it. Or is it that homeless people are naturally bad people? Well I have now met lots and apart from one who is a right cock, the rest are just normal people who only do desperate things because they are desperate – and without support everyone quickly becomes desperate.
Boris Johnson stated five years ago that no one needs to sleep rough in London. Well, there are rough sleepers everywhere. I feel that if he had to spend two weeks rough sleeping on the benefits system he would tackle the issue within a few months. We have thousands of empty properties in England that the government should open up to the homeless. Put in some Portaloos and camp beds with sleeping bags.
I was told I could not claim any benefits for three months. Why? Can I go three months without eating?
The homeless could still wash and shave in McDonald’s but at least they wouldn’t need to freeze at night, have nowhere to go to the toilet and get wet or get moved on at four in the morning by police or security officers. It’s like, “Thanks for waking me up, I forgot I was sleeping on the street. I will now return to my home, dear officer.”
The employment system is a joke as well. I returned to England seven months ago having been abroad. I was told I could not claim any benefits for three months. Why? Can I go three months without eating? When people are desperate they borrow money from places like payday lenders with astronomical APRs. I thought loan sharking was illegal in this country, it seems it’s fine if you open a shop.
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
I had arrived back in the country with £60 in my pocket. It was hard going once the money dried up. I needed to secure an advanced benefit claim whilst waiting for when I could finally claim properly. The process must have cost hundreds of pounds to give a final outcome that I could have £15 to last me 10 days. The times I had hunger pains in my stomach waiting to get some support was unbelievable to the point I was quite prepared to walk into a shop to steal some food, probably a bit like how heroin addicts feel when they need some drugs.
How are we supposed to be a great country when we don’t look after the vulnerable people at the bottom of the social ladder? If we have money to wage war then we have money to look after our own. The good news is I’m getting all the support I need now because I have contacted Veterans Aid. Their service is first class. “Are you hungry? Here is a ticket, go to the café next door and have a meal.”
After 20 minutes of talking to them they told me I never have to spend a night on the street again. That’s soldiers for you. Whatever you think of them, they act. They see a problem and they deal with it. I just wish the government had the same attitude for all the other poor bastards.