As I go around the country, knocking on people’s doors and writing poems for them, it felt right to acknowledge the fact that, for many, having a home of your own is a very distant dream. Years of cuts to welfare, soaring rents and a lack of social housing has meant that homelessness has been quickly and steadily rising over the past 10 years. The latest estimates from Shelter show more than 320,000 people in Britain are now homeless, and the number of rough sleepers has more than doubled since 2010.
I found out about St Basils last year, an organisation that helps young people aged 16 to 25 who need a place to stay. They’re based in and around Birmingham, an area with one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. I ended up chatting to Azim on the phone, who’s worked at St Basils for 16 years. He told me about Milner Court, one of their emergency accommodation buildings; it offers a room for up to 3 months, with 24-hour support from staff. After this, the young person might be moved on to somewhere more permanent, depending on their situation.
I explained that I wanted to talk to 3 residents and that I’d only start with one question, the only question I ask anyone as a Door-to-Door Poet: ‘What is important to you?’ I didn’t want to force these people to define themselves by their experiences and it felt like asking any loaded questions would just take away control. I was much more interested in what they would choose to talk about when left to their own devices, and how this would compare to the kinds of suggestions I’d already had.
Azim said he liked the idea and that I’d be very welcome to come down and give it a go. So, very early on a Wednesday morning, I packed my stuff and headed from Newcastle to Birmingham.
Captain’s Log 17/07/19 11:55
I’m standing outside Milner Court. It’s on a quiet, residential street, surrounded by neat, new build houses. It’s a red brick, 2 storey set of flats, that’s about 200 feet wide. The first thing I notice is how unassuming it looks. It seems silly to say it, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like this before. I don’t really know what I was expecting.
I walk up the concrete path to a little red door and press the button on the intercom. Nobody answers. I’m starting to wonder whether this is actually the right place. I try the bell again. Nothing. I’m about to walk away when it suddenly opens. A lady with braided hair and a lanyard appears.
“Come in,” she says, smiling. “Sorry it took a little while. You’re at the wrong door.”
We take a sharp left into a bustling office and I meet Azim. He shakes my hand, makes me a cup of tea, then takes me on a tour around the building.
Azim explains that Milner Court has 25 bedrooms, a communal living space and offices where the staff work from.
“We do a lot more than just offer a place to stay,” he tells me. “We provide learning and training opportunities, as well as counselling and therapy.”
He leads me up a winding staircase into an IT suite with a circular table and chairs. In a place with so many vulnerable residents, it’s not really possible to go around knocking on doors. Instead, Azim tells me that the young people are going to come up and see me here. He steps out the room and goes to fetch the first one.
Soon after, there’s a knock at the door and a lad in his early 20s comes in. His hair is shaved short and neat and he has two very shiny studs in both ears. I shake his hand and he tells me his name is Ibrahim.
Me, him and Azim take a seat. I tell Ibrahim what I’m here for and explain what the project is all about. Then I do my introductory poem.* Once I’m finished, I start the ball rolling.
“So, when I say the words ‘what is important to you,’ Ibrahim, what springs to mind?”
“I’m training to become a P.E teacher,” he says.
He tells me he’s got a level 3 in sports psychology and that he starts his teacher training in September. I ask him what made him want to get into teaching.
“I went to a really good school,” he says. “Well, it turned into a good school. New teachers came in and brought a new style.” He tells me how they gave students a lot more autonomy, how you had some set work to do in a lesson but, once you’d finished, you could relax before the next part of the day.
I ask Ibrahim what’s important to him about P.E.
“You’re helping people. You can help them with the physical side, or increase their mental health as well. A few of my friends were never really into sports. Now they’ve started, they’re more energetic, more ‘out there’.” I explain that, as a stereotypical poet, I don’t really do much moving around. I ask him if he could recommend something.
“Football,” he says, laughing. “It doesn’t feel like exercise.”
It’s been really nice chatting to Ibrahim, he seems like such a thoughtful, friendly guy- I’m sure he’ll make a great teacher. I thank him for getting involved and make plans for when I’ll deliver the poem. Then he heads out with Azim, who goes off to get the next person.
After a minute or so, another young man comes in in a red t-shirt, who looks a bit like Sue Jorge from Life Aquatic. He sits down and tells me his name is Vita. I explain what the project is about and start doing my intro poem. Halfway through, he stops me.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says. “I don’t speak English very good.” The poor lad, I’ve been rhyming at him in full on Geordie here, I realise this is all probably a bit confusing. We start again, but this time I talk a bit slower.
I ask Vita what’s important to him.
“My story,” he tells me. He starts to talk about his life, about how he got here. He explains that him and his mother came to Birmingham from the Congo when he was 18. Then Vita was offered a place to study economics in a college in London. He had an auntie who lived there, so he left Birmingham and moved in with her.
Unfortunately, his auntie’s living arrangements changed and she didn’t have the space for him to stay anymore. To make matters worse, his mother had taken in another family member and she no longer had the room to take him back either. With no money to get a place of his own, Vita suddenly found himself adrift in a completely new city. After staying in a recovery house, he was eventually picked up by a support worker called Shane, who told him about St Basil’s in Birmingham.
I ask him how old he is now.
“19,” he tells me. The immediacy of this suddenly hits me: He’s only lived in England for a year. I ask him what he would say to his support worker if he was here now. “Thank you,” he says. “He fixed my life- I have a chance to get a place, to go to college.” I tell Vita I appreciate him sharing so much of his story. I make plans for delivering the poem and he heads out.
Through the course of hearing all this, I’ve noticed there was a few taps at the door and Azim has had to go out and then come back in again a few times. At this point, he tells me that word about my visit has spread around the building; there’s now a group of 18-year-olds gathered outside, who are all quite keen on having a poem.
This is very sweet. I do quite a lot of work with young people and you don’t always get this kind of enthusiasm. It’s also kind of ironic that, for the first time, I’m the one who’s getting the knock. Me and Azim decide that the best thing to do is to bring them all in and write a group poem. He goes to get them and they file in one by one. First is Morgan, a girl with a bright yellow jumper and white rimmed glasses; then a girl called Nagr in a black headscarf and a green bomber jacket; then Naya, a girl with really long and straight black hair; lastly, a boy in a blue hoodie called Chappo.
I ask them what is important to them. Chappo throws out a wildcard.
“Brexit,” he says. “I’ve got no idea what’s going on with that.” I tell him I don’t think anybody does. We get chatting about the possible effects it’s going to have on the country, about where the issue has come from.
“I think 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote,” Naya says. “People our age aren’t going to be able to afford a flat, never mind a house. The value of the pound is going down, Uni prices will go up. If you can have a child at 16 you should be able to vote.”
We get talking about the main differences between the various political parties. Morgan says that she wishes she knew more about this kind of thing. I ask the group if they feel like this is something that was missing from school, being taught about how to vote and what the political parties stand for.
“Yeah, and budgeting,” Morgan says, in a broad Brummie accent. “They taught me how to calculate the circumference of a black hole. But they didn’t tell me how to budget.”
Naya argues that the schools don’t want us to know these things.
“The education system was designed to get people working in factories. That’s why everyone is given rules, everyone sits in a row and puts their hand up. And that’s why social and racial inequality is inevitable. I had a teacher come up to me once and tell me that, because of the colour of my skin, I was going to be in prison by the time I was 18.”
This is really upsetting to hear. Especially as, if there’s anything that shines through in this conversation, it’s the unique aspirations of the group.
“Most girls do health and beauty,” Morgan tells me. “I don’t want to be a hairdresser, I want to be a coroner.” Naya explains that she’s just finished her A-levels and wants to be a clinical therapist, to treat people with mental health disorders.
“There are people who are struggling to get by in their daily life. Everyone deserves a chance to be at their happiest.”
It’s been nearly an hour, which has flown over. I thank the group for giving up so much of their time. We get a quick picture together, then they head out of the room and I start to pack my bag.
It’s been very moving to hear what these young people have had to say today. At times, I’ve been given a saddening glimpse into their personal lives. At others, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of their suggestions were influenced by their particular experiences. But I still feel it was right not to choose a subject for them; not to let the place that these people are living in dictate the topics that we spoke about.
And one thing that has really united these conversations has been a sense of focus and drive. From Ibrahim, preparing to become a teacher, to Vita studying economics, to Morgan and Naya, both working towards jobs which will make a huge contribution to society, these young people have consistently expressed a strong desire to work hard and better themselves.
So often, the right wing press gives us the impression that homelessness is all about individual choice- that it’s about being lazy or having made the wrong decisions. It’s clear to me from today that nothing could be further from the truth. I get chatting to Azim about this on the way out.
“I do talks with corporations, faith groups, community groups,” he says. “I tell them that homelessness can effect anybody. It’s not based on your class, your social situation. You could fall into debt, you could have a family breakdown. It effects everybody.”
It’s been a very eye-opening experience and it’s given me a lot to think about. I thank Azim for all of his help, then head down the stairs and out of the door.
* I’m a Door-to-Door Poet
and I know that sounds quite crazy,
but this could be worse though,
I could be the Avon lady.
I’m not here selling potions
to give you skin that shines,
I just want to ask a question
in a way that also rhymes.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, deathly shrouds,
serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate-
walls thin as paper used to trace,
the clouds an endless tone of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping, but less frightening,
and I’m standing here to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about your life.
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem
or at least have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe your blood is boiling
from a recent council fine.
Maybe you dropped your smart phone
and it fell down the toilet,
I don’t know, I can’t decide for you
‘cos that would spoil it.
So cheers for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose,
don’t slam the door, don’t be nervous,
the Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.
I’m currently touring a show all about the beginnings of the project. To find out more, click here.