James Campbell: “She said I looked too clean to be homeless”

Read the second part of James Campbell's extraordinary diary about life on the streets – published only in The Big Issue

James Campbell has been sleeping rough since May when he left his home in Kettering to look for work. He has been selling The Big Issue in Scotland and keeping a diary of his experiences. Here is the second chapter…

JULY 6. THE HOUSING OFFICER

The other day a friend suggested I may be able to apply for housing benefit whilst still in the process of looking for accommodation, and this would speed up the process. Not being someone to take things people say without getting it verified, as I’m passing the housing office I decide to go in and ask if this is the case.

When my name is called I go to Room Three. In comes the Housing Officer. What happens next is not verbatim, I didn’t have my Dictaphone, but the dialogue is as close as I recall – I handwrote it immediately on my exit.

“Hello James, my name is ___. [She sits down] I see you were here in May/June. We told you we had no duty of care towards you as you have no local connection. You had to go to your local housing authority.”

“I know, I’m just here to…”

“Don’t give me any of your flannel! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? WHY ARE YOU HERE TODAY? YOU HAVE ALREADY BEEN TELT…”

(She’s shouting and her accent is becoming broader)

“But I…”

“NO BUTS FROM YOU! Have you been here all this time? I don’t think so. You been back to your local authority! You’re here to try for a handout. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN STAYING?”

“Sleeping rough.” (I get that in quickly)

You don’t look like it. Clean clothes, all shaved, you’re not kidding anyone!

“You don’t look like it. Clean clothes, all shaved, you’re not kidding anyone! Well unfortunately for you I am going to be contacting your local authority to see if you have a claim down there!”

“Why is that unfortunate for me?
I only…”

“I am going to check up on you and then we’ll see.”

“But all I wanted to ask was…”

“YOU’RE NO’ ASKIN’ FOR NOTHIN’, NOW GO AND WAIT TO BE CALLED BACK IN.”

Her voice must be resonating around the whole building.

I do as requested, a bit concerned maybe the Housing Officer could do with a cup of tea, half a valium or possibly just a hug!!! While filling in the application form to apply for an application form to apply for a homeless assessment I ask the woman at reception Housing Officer’s name, having forgotten after all the trauma.

“She said I looked too clean to be homeless.” The receptionist stifles a chuckle. While waiting I furiously write this interaction up, cursing the theft of my Dictaphone.

I am called back in.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

“Hello again Mr Campbell…”

“Hello again Mr Campbell. [Mr this time!] I have asked my colleague to sit in as I am aware of what you said about me saying that you looked too clean to be homeless. I didn’t mean for you to take it personally.”

“I didn’t, my concern…”

“I didn’t mean FOR YOU TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY! I CAN ASSURE YOU OF THAT! [Looks to colleague for validation].

“I didn’t take it personally, my concern is that you speak to other people like this.”

Her colleague rolls her eyes and takes her leave.

“I have done all the checks and you haven’t got any other claims on the go. BUT AS I HAVE SAID WE –DO-NOT-HAVE-A-DUTY-OF-CARE-TO-ACCOMMODATE-YOU! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR!!!?”

“I know, I just…”

“And selling The Big Issue doesn’t give you a local connection. However, today we are going to accommodate you in a B ‘n’ B until your homeless assessment. SIGN HERE, HERE AND HERE AND I’LL SEE YOU IN A FORTNIGHT, NOW GO!”

READ PARTS 13, 4 & 5 OF JAMES’ ACCOUNT OF LIFE ON THE STREETS

I’m left head spinning.

I’m left head spinning. Concerned she might be in the middle of a nervous breakdown – will she get a cup of tea?

Are there any medications or talking therapies available? Why am I leaving with something I was told that I wasn’t eligible for? (Or am I?)

And most importantly: can I apply for housing benefit whilst still in the process of looking for accommodation, and would this speed up the process?

What is concerning me is whether this is a strategy used to upset the client, goad them into responding aggressively whereby the officer can refuse to see them. Fellow homeless people have described similar experiences at this housing office.

So folks, next rules:

1. Let the Officer do the talking

2. Don’t lose your rag

3. Don’t be surprised if you leave with something completely different to what you were enquiring about.

James Campbell is not his real name, and the photo is not of him