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Is rough sleeping the sign of community failure?

My next round of tests are all done and I’m awaiting results again. So, to distract myself from the ‘Big C’, here is the first of a three part series of thoughts that I’ve wanted to write down for a long time. This is the story of my first encounter with a rough sleeper.

Once upon a time, I met a man in a bin….

It was 2002, I had just moved to Canada for a few months and I heard a lot of banging coming from a large industrial bin. So, I went over to investigate and, hoping to see my first raccoon, a friendly-faced man with a big bushy beard popped his head up and said “Hi, I’m Peter!” A bit surprised, I introduced myself and, after a short chat, he said “You’ll see me around”. Sure enough, I saw Peter around a lot after that, often pushing a shopping trolley full of cans and bottles, with an ice hockey stick and his other (few) possessions attached.

Peter was one of Vancouver’s large population of rough sleepers. He was in the bin because he earned money from collecting empty cans and bottles. He would receive a few cents for each one, thanks to a Canadian government recycling scheme. This scheme meant that he could afford to buy essential items (like food); but, more importantly, it allowed him to retain a sense of dignity after becoming homeless. He wanted to work – but at his own pace, which didn’t really suit mainstream employment – and he refused to resort to begging for handouts or money, even though he might have made a better living from doing so.

Me and Peter Hans Lang (2006)

A few years later, on a second stay in Canada, mine and Peter’s paths crossed again. This time things were different because, unknown to Peter, I had been given a job managing an old university campus centre building and I had found him sleeping around the back of the building, hidden from public view. When we caught up he said he expected to be moved on from the building by the Police at some point. I was so pleased to see his face when I told him I was now the manager and he wasn’t to fear being evicted – he had permission to stay.

I lived next door to this centre, so Peter became my neighbour and he turned out to be a pretty good one too. On at least one occasion he prevented a break in at the centre. He was also tidy, polite and streetwise – he would often see off other rough sleepers, telling me they were trouble. But, on this point, I didn’t trust him entirely and thought he was being a bit territorial and unfair to others. So, one time, I let a homeless lady stay in the centre shed, totally against Peter’s advice. I confess that I had half a thought about match-making this lady with Peter, but what an awful idea that turned out to be. I soon discovered that this lady wasn’t at all who she appeared to be. She was extremely mentally unwell and she destroyed that shed. Lesson learned – not every rough sleeper is trustworthy or mentally stable!

A year or so later and the campus centre had gone from being a fairly quiet place to somewhere with quite a lot of activity. The various offices were all rented and student groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and a thriving student church were all using the main halls. Peter was known and liked by the many different people passing through and he was very much welcome there. But, sadly, the owners of the centre didn’t appreciate that I’d been allowing a homeless guy to live there. They also had concerns about a Christian church to whom I’d been renting the building on a Sunday morning.

To cut a longer story short, I ended up on the wrong side of my employers by defending Peter and the church (even though the centre was owned by a Christian church, but just a different ‘brand’) and my contract was terminated a few months early. I was really frustrated that my Christian employers seemed to be behaving in such a non-Christian way – evicting a homeless guy with no care for him AND refusing to work with other Christian groups. At the time some Northern Irish friends of mine reminded me that I was a bit naive to think that different Christian denominations could see eye-to-eye. So disappointing.

Anyway, Peter was evicted, but we kept in touch. He ended up being offered a shed (quite a nice one) by a kind couple who attended the Sunday church that was renting the centre that I managed (that church was also turfed out).

In total, I knew Peter for six years, on and off. I last saw him in 2008 and was told that he passed away shortly afterwards (obituaries of homeless people aren’t easy to find, so I have no idea when he actually died). He had a visibly large tumour on his neck and he was often encouraged to get it checked out. Apparently it was cancer. *UPDATE* A mutual friend of mine and Peter’s contacted me after I posted this blog to say that Peter died of cancer in a hospice in East Vancouver. 

I enjoyed Peter’s company a lot and remember fondly our late-night chats over a beer. I also appreciated how he came to find me following the London 7/7 bombings and the Buncefield explosion, because I was living in Canada during both of those UK disasters and, knowing I was English, he wanted to check that my family were OK! He had a good heart.

Peter wasn’t a drug addict (unlike so many of Vancouver’s rough sleepers at the time) and, while he often drank too much and was physically and emotionally scarred from living on the streets, he was a bright guy. I never had the sense he was ‘playing’ me, because he never really asked me for anything, other than my recycling.

I often wondered how Peter ended up homeless and, on the occasions when I would find him drunk, he would be angrily repeating the same tragic story about his wife and a young daughter being knocked over by a drunk driver. Both ended up dying from their injuries and the driver (who Peter said was very wealthy and hired a good lawyer), didn’t serve much time in prison for his actions. Peter was a proud man and maintained his anger at the sense of injustice. As a result, he began to refuse to pay state taxes and, eventually, that led to him losing his job in a boatyard, as well as his home.

I’ve always had a niggling sense of doubt about whether this story was true or not, because I’ve since met so many rough sleepers who have lied to me. But I choose to believe Peter wasn’t lying to me, because he was consistent and the story did seem to add up. Anyway, it doesn’t actually matter whether the story that he told me (and others) was true or not because, regardless of the detail, every story of homelessness is a tragedy.

What I learned from knowing Peter and many other rough sleepers since is that nobody aspires to become a rough sleeper. All of the rough sleepers that I have known end up in that state because of brokenness somewhere along the line. Many, if not most, have been victims of broken homes as children; many haven’t known good or loving parents; and all wish their lives had turned out differently.

It was 10 years ago that I last saw Peter and I find it strange how I’ve spent almost half of that time working for homelessness charities. In fact, last week I should have been supporting a charity in writing a Comic Relief bid to help homeless people here in the UK. Unfortunately, my scans have prevented that from happening. But instead I hope that this blog might go some way to reminding people that not all rough sleepers are hopeless drug addicts and, even if they are, every one is a person with a sad story. Sure, many have made bad choices in life, but others have been the victims of bad choices. To highlight that point, a magistrate told me recently that more than 75% of people in the youth justice system are from broken homes – kids don’t chose that; it’s chosen for them. Likewise, Peter didn’t chose for his wife and daughter to be killed by a drunk driver.

I’ll finish with something a Rabbi and head of a large Jewish community once said to me:

“If any member of our community became homeless, we would have failed as a community”.

I love that statement. What struck me even more about this Rabbi was that, year after year, he mobilised large teams to raise support for a Christian homelessness charity for which I was working – knowing that it was a service his own community were very unlikely to ever use. This reminds me that there is a lot of good going on in the world, it’s just not usually very ‘newsworthy’. I suppose that if Peter were a member of a community like this then people would have rallied around him in support through his initial tragedy and prevented him from becoming a rough sleeper in the first place.

The rabbi’s statement reminds me that, much like seeing a bird of prey is the sign of a healthy ecosystem, seeing a rough sleeper is the sign of an unhealthy society. Or is rough sleeping the ‘tip of the iceberg’, warning us that there is a huge underlying lack of truly affordable accommodation beneath? I’ll explore some thoughts on this subject in part two of my thoughts about homelessness.

On a positive note, the government here in the UK recently announced a £100m drive to end rough sleeping by 2027. A great dream! Will it work? I sure hope so. We’ll have to wait and see….

Homelessness Part II: (Un)affordable Housing

Homelessness Part III: How can we fix the UK’s housing crisis?


  1. N

    The story I heard was that Peter had been killed by a vehicle running him over on University Boulevard—which is particularly tragic in light of his wife and daughter. You were a really good friend to him. I’m sure you impacted his life just as much as he did yours.

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