When his wife died suddenly 18 months ago, Piotrek’s life collapsed. He lost everything and ended up sleeping rough outside a post office on Clapham High Street for nearly a year. I met him at Ace of Clubs, a day centre in south London that helps homeless and vulnerable people, and where I’ve been spending time for the last 12 months. He explained to me how he ended up on the streets, how the local authority’s under-resourced homeless services failed him – and how Ace has been helping him to get back on his feet…
Piotrek came to the UK 15 years ago when Poland first joined the EU – a young man seeking adventure and a better life. He fell in love, got married and had a daughter. He worked for a road construction company, earned a decent wage and rented a family home in Kent. They were not rich, he tells me, but life was good.
“For the first 13, 14 years here, everything was ok,” he says. “Then, one day, my wife got sick and a couple of weeks later, she died.” It was only then that Piotrek discovered that his wife had HIV. She had never been diagnosed and so was not being treated – she died from an infection that should not have been fatal.
“He was depressed, bordering on suicidal. Then, he turned to heroin”
“I thought life was beautiful,” he says. “She loved me, I loved her, we were happy. What came out after she died was that she’d been with someone who had Aids. I hadn’t been with anyone else, and our daughter doesn’t have it, so it means she must have got it [after their daughter was born].”
Her death and the subsequent discovery were too much for him. He had a mental breakdown and started drinking heavily. He was depressed, bordering on suicidal. Then, he turned to heroin. Over the course of a few terrible months, he lost his job, stopped paying his rent and his daughter was taken into care.
“I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “I just wanted to forget.” Eventually, he was evicted. “On the day I left, I put all my stuff in the car. I went back to pick up my documents, and when I came down the car was gone. Somebody nicked it with all my stuff.”
From Kent, he travelled with what little he had left to West Norwood, where a friend let him stay on his sofa for a few weeks. It was this friend who first told him about Ace of Clubs – and so Piotrek started to go every day, initially for the £1 lunch.
Sarah Miles at Ace of Clubs helping clients with their paperwork. Piotrek is not in this photograph
Soon, he had to move out of his friend’s flat – but another homeless client at Ace told him about a basement beneath a nearby block of flats where he could bed down.
“I was sleeping there for maybe two months. But then they closed it and kicked us out. So I started sleeping outside the post office [on Clapham High Street]. I slept there for about 10 months.”
It was on his second visit to Ace of Clubs that he found out he had HIV. He was introduced to Amy Hall, the nurse practitioner who runs a weekly surgery at Ace for people who can’t access a GP or other NHS services.
“She put my name in the computer and it pops up that they’re looking for me,” Piotrek says. “After my wife died, I did a test, but then I moved out of Kent, and they couldn’t find me to tell me the result. I hadn’t even thought about it.”
“When I came here, I was almost dead”
When Amy first saw him his CD4 count – the measure of white blood cells that support the immune system – was dangerously low. A healthy level would be over 500 – anything under 200 means you are at significant risk of serious illness. Piotrek’s count was 11.
“When I came here, I was almost dead,” he says. “I slept all the time, I was so tired, I was so skinny. I was 58 kilos.” Amy referred him and he started receiving treatment within a few days. Nearly a year later and he says he feels much better. His CD4 count is healthy and he’s now back to 82kg.
He’s still drinking a little every day, he tells me, but says it’s nothing like before, and he’s no longer using heroin – although he is taking methadone. “I really want to come off this, it’s too much like heroin,” he says. “I want to do rehab, only they say that my methadone [dose] is still too big. So I have to make it lower.”
Through Ace of Clubs’ collaboration with another homeless charity, Glass Door, Piotrek was eventually placed in temporary accommodation in Lewisham by Lambeth Council, after a protracted fight. He’s been there for about a month now.
Rough sleeping in England has been steadily growing since 2010. It rose 16% last year and 30% in 2015
It was a long road to get there. He was sleeping on the streets for nearly a year and says he lost count of the number of times Lambeth Council’s Safer Streets homeless outreach team spoke to him, but did not take him to a shelter. Their own targets state that “100% of new rough sleepers do not have a second night out” and “No one living on the streets (spending more than three weeks out)”.
Rough sleeping in England has been steadily growing since 2010. It rose 16% last year and 30% in 2015. Statutory homeless applications received by local authorities have grown more slowly – 3% from 2014-2016, but over the same period there was a 23% rise in households living in temporary accommodation and a 38% rise in people being housed in a different area from the one they had been living in. In Lambeth, where social housing is in desperately short supply and around 23,000 people are on the waiting list, this is hardly surprising.
As Ace of Clubs’ Sarah Miles explained to me when I interviewed her last year, beds and other services for homeless people are increasingly few and far between, thanks to cuts filtering down from central Government. Ferrini House, a shelter in Streatham, closed last year, as I reported on this blog. And more cuts to homeless services are due to kick in later this year. So, instead of being taken to a shelter, Piotrek says the Safer Streets team would wake him, ask him questions but then just move on.
Thankfully, his life is slowly starting to get back on track. He now has regular access to his daughter, and if he can find permanent accommodation and come off methadone then his social worker says that – eventually – she may be able to live with him again. He wants to start working as soon as possible. Getting off methadone is the next step.
“This place picked me up,” he says of Ace. “They got me help, from doctors, and for my mind. They got me a place to live. I feel a bit better about myself now. Sarah… she’s helped me so much.”
I ask him what he thinks would have happened if he hadn’t found Ace. “I was really bad when I first came,” he says, after a pause. “I was thinking, I will finish with myself soon. So I think I’d be dead. Yeah, probably dead somewhere.”
Piotrek’s name has been changed at his request.