This has been a strange year. I know that’s something of an understatement, but it’s difficult to put into words how weird things are at the moment without it sounding like the opening of a depressing science fiction novel from the early 70s:
A highly-contagious virus has forced people into isolation. Those who risk leaving their homes wear masks to prevent spreading an infection they may not realise they have. No one can come within two metres of another person. The economy is collapsing, yet as most people get poorer, the few in control of supplies, infrastructure, and technology get richer. No one knows when this will end.
Like many of you, I’ve spent much more of the past year at home than I usually would have. I’m still working the day job at the moment as it is classified as essential, and I go for walks, but I am at home a lot. During the summer, that meant opening the windows and counting my blessings that I have a small garden to escape into with the toddler who has taken over my living space. Now it is getting colder, however, I am much more grateful for the roof over my head and the central heating that keeps it warm at night.
I was outside the other day, in Margate, and the air held a chill that bit to my bones and reminded me of another life. I was off a side street, a little out the way, as I had just parked my car in a space where you don’t have to pay an extortionate price for a ticket.
A man was walking towards me carrying a suitcase, so I crossed over the road to give him adequate room to pass, as social distancing is somewhat impossible on narrow pavements. He nodded a thank you in my direction, then hiked up the wall beside my car, threw his case over, and scrambled up.
This wall is seven feet tall, at least.
As the man vanished over the wall, curiosity got the better of me. It’s the writer in me, I suppose. I walked to the wall, scrambled up myself, and peered over. The other side was trees and shrubs, and the man had gone.
I didn’t see that man again, so I can only hope he was taking a cheeky short-cut, but my fear is that he was sleeping somewhere in that patch of tree-covered land. He wouldn’t be the first.
When I was a lot younger, I got into a situation where I had to sleep rough for a few nights. This was far away from Thanet, up in the midlands, back when you needed a computer and a cable to connect to the internet, and there was snow on the ground.
That first night I had no money, no phone, and no way of getting any support, so I walked for as long as I could but the cold got the better of me. After a few hours of blindly walking through snow, I chanced upon a car that had been involved in a crash, so I opened the back door and climbed in.
Sleeping on the back seat of an abandoned car surrounded by broken glass in the frozen chill of a winter night was the closest I have come to homeless. The next morning I found a more sensible shelter that was indoors, and set about finding some help. After a few days I had somewhere more permanent to stay, but that first night has stuck with me ever since.
There are seventeen people in Thanet who have been verified as homeless. Seventeen people sleeping rough as the temperature drops. Seventeen people who have the elements to deal with as well at coronavirus.
As of Friday, November 20, 3,043 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Thanet district, with over a hundred positive tests on Friday. 163 people have died and had COVID-19 mentioned on their death certificate in Thanet alone. According to those statistics, over 5% of people in Thanet who have tested positive to COVID-19 have died. Imagine that, and a cold winter hitting, and you’re living in a tent.
Fortunately, Thanet Winter Shelter is doing that wonderful thing it does, starting yesterday (November 23). This year it has a building with individual rooms where those sleeping rough can get a bed for the night, a roof over their heads during the day, and a safe harbour during this storm of a year.
Whatever causes someone to be homeless is irrelevant when a virus is wiping out one in twenty people it infects. To be honest, it is irrelevant when the cold could kill you.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have gone through a night of sleeping rough. I know it pales in comparison to being homeless, but having gone through it, I have a lot of understanding of how the stability of life can be taken away in an instant. I don’t want sympathy, I want change.
Thanet Winter Shelter relies partially on government funding, local government help, and grants, but there is still a shortfall of funds needed. If ever there was a time to help people, this is it. They are taking donations through a JustGiving page which you can find by clicking here.
This year started odd and got worse, and at times it has felt like every day brings a new low, but it doesn’t need to end that way. We can do something for others and make a difference in our community here in Thanet.
No one should be on the streets in any winter, but definitely not when the country has all-but-closed due to a pandemic. Thanks to projects like Thanet Winter Shelter, that might be a future we can look forward to.