With UK homelessness rising by 14 per cent this year, PETER BARRON tells the moving story of a North-East man who spent six months sleeping in his car before being rescued by a housing association.

Think of homelessness, and the image most likely to spring to mind is of someone on the street – perhaps huddled in a shop doorway to shield from the wind and rain.

But Stephen represents the hidden side of homelessness, and he fights back tears as he explains how he ended up sleeping in his car for six months.

“It was a nightmare, and it can happen to anyone,” says the unassuming 62-year-old.

Today, Stephen is safe and warm. He lives in a neat little house in Middlesbrough after being given refuge by North Star, a housing association carrying out priceless work on the frontline of poverty in the North-East. But his experience of being homeless remains very raw…

Stephen was born and raised in Middlesbrough. He’s always worked, with a variety of jobs, including being a postman, and he’s never had any addictions. He was just unlucky that a family dispute led to him becoming homeless.

Following the breakdown of his marriage in 1990, he’d been living with his mam, dad, and brother, but it all started to go wrong after his dad died in 2015. His brother moved to Tyneside but retained control of the finances, and a row led to Stephen storming out of the house.

That was in 2020 and it was the start of his life spiralling out of control, with his mental health suffering, and his self-esteem being lost.

“I didn’t know where I was going – I just had to get away,” he recalls.

He drove to Whitby for a night and slept in his car. When he returned to Middlesbrough to try to patch things up with his brother, the locks had been changed.

“He wouldn’t let me back into the house, so I went to Scarborough. It could have been anywhere,” he says.

He slept under a duvet in his small, black Fiesta, parking in backstreets, in the hope he wouldn’t be bothered.

“I couldn’t even lie down because the car was too small to stretch out – it was terrible. I became more and more depressed and didn’t know what to do or where to go,” he explains, wiping away more tears.

Things got worse when the car battery went flat. He had no heating in the car and relied on a portable radio for company. With no address, he couldn't claim benefits and, with only a small pension to draw on, he used foodbanks as well as going to the Salvation Army for hot meals and a wash.

After three months, the Sally Army helped him get his car battery fixed, and supplied him with a can of petrol. He headed to York, where he spent another three months sleeping in his car before finally returning to Middlesbrough, having not slept in a bed for six months.

A couple more nights in his car followed before he was picked up by Middlesbrough’s rough-sleepers crisis team, and put into a house with other homeless people, before being referred to North Star.

Stephen was assessed by Diane Eddison, service co-ordinator for North Star’s rough-sleepers' accommodation programme.

“It really upset me,” Diane recalls. “When he arrived, he was unkempt. We gave him some toast, but he was so hungry, he asked if he could have a couple of extra slices, and started crying.

“This is the side of homelessness no-one sees. Stephen is such a nice, gentle man, who’s worked all of his life, and has no addictions. 

"Homeless people often feel they’ve brought their problems on themselves but, in his case, it was just a family breakdown. He found himself homeless through no fault of his own, and it shows it can happen to anyone.”

Diane has more than 20 years’ experience in supported living, but this year is the worst she’s known for people feeling desperate. Jan Mohan, team manager for North Star’s rough-sleepers’ programme agrees.

“The demand for help is massive – I’ve never known it this bad,” says Jan.

According to latest statistics from Shelter, levels of homelessness have increased by 14 per cent since last year, with 309,550 people homeless compared to 271,421 in 2022.

And North Star’s chief executive, Angela Lockwood, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the social housing sector, says the worst crisis she’s seen in her career has resulted from a combination of factors:

n Not enough social housing being built over the past 15 years due to a lack of Government funding.

n Less stock in the private rented sector because high mortgages make it less attractive for landlords.

n High interest rates making it difficult for first-time buyers.

n The cost-of-living crisis following on from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our homeless schemes and hostels are choc-a-bloc, and there’s nowhere to move people to,” says Angela. “And the official figures are just the tip of the iceberg because it’s not just about people on the streets. It’s also people sofa-surfing or living in cars. We don’t really know the true scale, and Stephen’s story shows it can happen to anyone.”

As one of the region’s leading social housing providers, North Star manages a stock of more than 4,000 houses, as well as a range of support services. Since January 1 this year, North Star has completed 75 new homes for rent, rent-to-buy, and supported housing. That represents an investment of £9.9m, with grant support of £828,000 from Homes England.

In addition, North Star has set aside £200,000 for a welfare fund to help tenants in the most extreme cases of hardship, including the provision of food and heating vouchers.

Stephen counts himself as one of the lucky ones. He moved into a two-bedroomed house, provided by North Star, in February 2021, under a scheme that guarantees people in desperate need three years’ accommodation to find their feet. The aim is to move him into over-55s accommodation, also run by North Star, early next year.

In addition, Diane works with partners, such as Citizens' Advice, to help provide him with mental health support, financial and benefits advice, and food vouchers. She’s also sourced an iPad and mobile phone.

On the day we pay him a visit at his tidy little house, Stephen’s wearing a pair of donated shoes that Diane brought for him when they last met. This time, she’s come armed with a large bag packed with food and toiletries.

“I honestly don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t been for North Star – they’ve given me my life back," he says.

"When I was sleeping in my car, night after night, I never thought I’d end up in a nice, peaceful place like this – it’s a dream come true.”

Though he remains estranged from his brother, he’s reconnected with his sister, and they're about to visit their mother in the care home where she now lives, having been diagnosed with dementia while Stephen was sleeping rough.

Diane looks round his living room and notices something's missing: “You need a Christmas tree, Stephen," she says. "I’ve got a spare one in the loft at home – I’ll bring it next time.”