Stories of despair – and hope – from inside town centre homeless camp

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A homeless camp in the middle of Aylesbury town centre is a moving sign of poverty and despair not usually associated with leafy Bucks.

But in the entrance to an abandoned office block in George Street, Aylesbury, there are sleeping bags, pillows, chairs, umbrellas and food packaging strewn across the floor.

Six people call this place their home.

The group have frequented this small square of concrete they call their own for just under three months, and whenThe Bucks Herald spoke to some of these people they wished to remain anonymous, so the following names used are not real.

Sarah, 21, says she struggles with mental health issues and her arms bear the marks of long-term self harm.

She was brought up in a dysfunctional home where drug use was commonplace.

She says she cannot remember a time when her parents were together, but still has regular contact with her father who lives in Wendover.

She said: “I’ve got more scar tissue than skin. I had it all. I had a house, and I was married, but then it all crashed and burned.

“I sofa surfed for a while but then I ended up on the street. Now I go around looking for dog ends so I can put the tobacco into Rizla papers.”

Michael had a troubled upbringing and was kicked out of his grandparents’ house in High Wycombe at the age of 21 before spiralling into the seedy world of crime and drug addiction.

He said: “My daily drug use was off the stream. I was committing street robberies to feed my habit and basically just being a complete bastard.

“I didn’t have a care in the world. People walk past us every day and look at us like we’re scum, but we’re human beings.

“Anyone can pour petrol over us while we’re asleep. I don’t sleep for longer than 10 minutes at a time because I have to keep my ears open.”

Unbreakable bonds have been formed through experiences these people have shared, and they are fiercely protective of one another.

Dave first became homeless last year after was evicted from his flat in Southcourt, Aylesbury.

He invited vulnerable people in off the street, but the situation quickly began to spiral out of control.

Dave, now off the streets and living with his boyfriend, is well spoken. Dressed in a white shirt and suit trousers, he was visiting his homeless friends. He said: “I got myself into a right mess. They were using drugs and it was awful for my neighbours.

“I got thrown out and the housing association boarded up my flat for six months”

But thanks to help from Aylesbury Vale District Council, the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust and police, Dave managed to turn his life around and is holding down a job.

He said: “When I tried to help, I became part of the problem. I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for the support I’ve had. I’m so thankful.”

Police Insp James Davies said: “We have less homeless people in the town centre than last year, but it’s a difficult balancing act. Often you find they are more of a risk to themselves than others, because of sharing needles etc.”

But despite this bleak picture there are people who care, and Karen Warner of the Aylesbury Homeless Action Group has been running the Winter Warmth shelter for the past four years. This year she helped 18 homeless people find a bed for the night, and is exploring the option to open a permanent shelter with the district council.

The town centre shelter, of which the location cannot be revealed for security reasons, is only open from January to March each year at a cost of £28,000.

It holds up to seven people at a time and offers access to a hot meal and a camp bed.

Karen said: “It is very expensive, and to set up a permanent night shelter properly would cost around £250,000. It’s very intensive work but we believe it’s worth it.”

AHAG is not merely just a warm bed for the night, as Karen and her five staff members work hard all year round to reach out to those living on the street, with the main aim being to get the vulnerable back on their feet.