Daniel Lavelle knows how the story of his homelessness might look to the casual observer. Viewed in isolation, he notes, “the circumstances that precipitated my journey to the streets seem entirely of my own making”. As well as racking up considerable rent arrears, he had been drinking heavily, lost a series of low-paid jobs and moved out of his flat voluntarily. But, as we learn in his candid yet resolutely un-self-pitying memoir, there were complicating factors, among them his ADHD (his psychiatrist said his was the most severe case he’d ever seen), long spells in foster care and children’s homes, and multiple exclusions from school. Add to that the rise of zero-hours contracts, soaring rents, and the cuts to welfare and social care implemented during the coalition government’s austerity programme, and it becomes grimly apparent how a man like Lavelle can slip through the cracks.
Down and Out is part memoir, part howl of fury at a system that has led to an estimated 274,000 homeless people in the UK. As well as telling his own story, Lavelle seeks out the testimony of others, many of whom, he notes, have had a harder time than him. Among them is Sunita, who was removed from her mother when she was born and endured physical and sexual abuse in the care system. In her teens, she was in an abusive relationship and, in order to escape the situation, began sleeping in Manchester’s Piccadilly station. On asking local authorities for assistance, she was told she didn’t qualify since she had made herself homeless. Lavelle also meets Stuart, who, after being evicted from his flat for allowing a homeless friend to stay, set up home on the banks of a nearby canal, complete with his living room furniture. “The police kept coming down, saying, ‘You can’t stay here. It’s public land’,” Stuart says. “I said, ‘Well, I am a member of the fuckin’ public, mate.’”
There is a rich seam of humour here, not least in the nicknames Lavelle gives to authority figures, from Mr Cue Ball, the shiny-headed headteacher of a special needs boarding school, to Mr Stickler, an officious line manager at a supermarket where he stacked shelves. Yet, amid the laughs there are moments of profound sadness as Lavelle guides us through the effects of the housing crisis; drugs and alcohol dependency among homeless people; and the iniquities of social care, from the failures within the system to the problems that arise when care leavers are left to fend for themselves. Most shocking is the chapter where he details his and others’ treatment by a homelessness charity, which left him feeling “exploited, demoralised and angry”, leading him to conclude that the sector is fundamentally broken.
Lavelle paints a dire picture, though he insists the situation can be fixed, as evidenced during the UK’s first lockdown when, according to the government, 90% of rough sleepers were helped off the streets. Ending homelessness, he says, “is well within our means. All we lack is the will to solve it.”