Charles Dickens changed Victorian attitudes towards poverty forever. Two hundred years later, four former rough sleepers are attempting to follow in his footsteps by transforming the way homelessness services are delivered. Jess McCabe joins the quartet as they begin their gruelling journey
Source: Peter Langdown Photography
@aibaihe: ‘Butterflies in my tummy about tomorrow’s @EXP2A # DickensTrek - none of us have any money so like it or not we have to finish or not get home!’
It’s 5.30am and a small brown slug is falling. A minute before, the slug had been suspended upside down, leisurely climbing the underside of an umbrella. But it climbed too high and, reaching the pinnacle of the brolly, relaxed its mucus hold on the material and plummeted down.
The slug lands on a soft surface - the face of James MacPherson. He is 21, whisper thin, and had until that moment been asleep, wedged with three companions, in a bush under the umbrella. It is this unconventional alarm clock that jerks Mr MacPherson awake. Within moments the group - who are in the middle of a 75-mile sponsored walk to raise money for their new homelessness charity - realise they are covered with the slimy gastropods.
Twenty hours previously, I joined the four walkers in very different surroundings; the house in suburban Portsmouth where Charles Dickens was born. The trekkers are all former rough sleepers and we squeeze into the house together, padding from room to well-appointed room, some of us having to bend to avoid the low ceilings. The neat, polished Victorian furniture offers few clues that the baby who came squealing into the world here would go on to transform the way the English middle classes viewed the destitution all around them.
Road less travelled
The four are an unlikely quartet too. It would be impossible to guess that Dickens fan Alex Ireland, 36, who works in an office and speaks with a middle class accent, had ever slept on the streets.
Her partner Bradley Martin, 31, with a single tear tattooed under one eye, was the first person she spoke to when she began sleeping rough, and provides a constant supply of colourful banter.
Mr MacPherson, who has an interest in physics and talks with a soft Glaswegian accent, spent 18 months sleeping rough and is now living in a hostel. He met the fourth member of the group, self-described former hippy Barry Milburn, aged 48 from the Lake District, when sleeping under Waterloo bridge in central London.
Together, they are setting off on two journeys - the first, a three-day trek from Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace to Westminster Abbey, 75 miles away, where the author is buried. The aim is to raise money towards the second journey: establishing a charity, exP2A, with a radical new approach to empowering former homeless people to take control of their own destinies.
‘We’re more prepared in spirit than substance,’ Ms Ireland, also director of exP2A, quips as the walkers hoist packs onto their backs.
When it comes to the walk, there’s clearly some truth to this statement. Three of the four are in trainers - Mr MacPherson has proper boots from his time sleeping rough. Plans to bring a tent were dropped.
‘It was heavy and no one would take responsibility for it,’ Ms Ireland says, adding that after sleeping outside, a tent is humid and uncomfortable. ‘We’ve got bin bags,’ she adds, cheerfully. Mr Milburn carries their cheese sandwiches in a plastic shopping bag.
On the road, though, the walk gets off to a strong start. A damp sprinkling of rain cools us down, as the four exP2A walkers and Inside Housing dig into the first task: to get out of Portsmouth and its suburbs, which takes all morning and some of the afternoon.
Mr MacPherson navigates, frequently checking Google Maps on his Blackberry phone. Once off the street where Dickens was born, we amble along the side of a dual carriageway, dip below underpasses and encounter row after row of rundown shops.
The city would have been virtually unrecognisable to Dickens - although it’s easy to imagine the walkers’ charity would have appealed to the novelist, who is as famous for piercing the social conscience of middle class Victorians as he is for producing weighty tomes and pithy caricatures.
But Dickens was also a habitual walker of long distances, often strolling 20 miles a day on his expeditions. In The Uncommercial Traveller, a collection of vignettes, Dickens wrote: ‘My walking is of two kinds: one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond.’
The author referred to his long, late-night walks around London as experiments in ‘houselessness’.
Our trekkers, though, are veterans of real homelessness. On the walk, they open up slowly about their experiences on the streets, the forging of their friendship, and how the idea for exP2A germinated.
They trade stories about being beaten up. ‘Mine was right outside the police station,’ Mr Milburn says. ‘There was that guy who took a run-up and kicked me in the breast,’ chimes in Ms Ireland (who did not wish to be photographed).
We also have plenty of time to talk about the origins and aims of exP2A, which stands for ‘passive to active’. Ms Ireland had been mulling the idea for a charity for some time, but it was only a few months ago, when Mr MacPherson came off the streets to live in a hostel, that the group had enough stability to put their plans into action.
They say it is clear the current provision of services and accommodation for homeless people has much to offer, but they want to launch a new, more empowering, ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ project, which isn’t made up of ‘service users’ relying on others, but ‘associates’ taking full part in the organisation.
Many homeless organisations have taken on board the mantra ‘nothing about us, without us’, and include feedback from clients, or hire former service users, often for front line roles. But in exP2A, all roles - including the organisation’s leadership - will be taken by people with significant experience of homelessness. It will primarily target people who have stopped sleeping rough, are leaving hostels and moving into permanent accommodation.
The group needs £1,500 to kick-start their organisation, paying for expenses such as insurance and registering as a charity.
‘Our associates will be ex-homeless people who are committed to change,’ Mr MacPherson explains. They list outcomes such as confidence, overcoming fear of new situations and taking responsibilities for others’ needs. At first, this will take the form of an outdoor fitness group, which is being kicked off by Mr Martin, and they hope will include both ‘associates’ and general members of the public.
‘With the fitness group, our associates will be motivators,’ Mr MacPherson explains. ‘We’re instantly putting them in a position of authority which reinforces the idea that they’re not passively taking the support anymore, they give back a little bit.’
Alistair Murray, deputy director of Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice, is one enthusiast: ‘I think it’s an excellent idea for people who have had experience of homelessness to start working on projects that would help others in that situation.’ Given Ms Ireland’s determination, he adds: ‘If anyone can do it, Alex can.’
Bumps in the road
By now we are about 10 miles into the walk, having climbed out of Portsmouth to see the first signs of the countryside. Fields and trees rise on either side and a tiny hedgehog waddles unperturbed.
The route is not always plain sailing, however, and we come across a section where the pavement ends unexpectedly. We stop by the side of the road to debate what to do next. Mr MacPherson consults his phone - an alternative, paved route will take us miles and miles out of the way. ‘Let’s press on,’ Ms Ireland says, and we do, clinging to the grass verge as cars and trucks zoom past.
Mr Milburn, who was only the previous week discharged from hospital after a minor stroke - and was told by his doctor he could take part in the trek - is in the lead, with Mr Martin and Ms Ireland trailing behind. There’s nowhere to stop and wait so the group spreads out. Eventually, the turning for Petersfield comes up and we all gratefully get off the dual carriageway.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Mr Milburn shows his hippy, foraging, credentials, as he spots something in the wild bushes to the side of the road: first, a tiny apple. ‘It’s sweet,’ he insists. Then he picks a bunch of cherries from a bush, which the walkers eat as they make their way along another 10 miles of easy road until they reach the centre of Petersfield.
It’s time for me to leave the trek, and everyone is in high spirits, joking about their aches and pains. ‘By tomorrow,’ Mr Martin says, ‘our feet’ll look like tangerines.’
‘We’ve been walking since 5.30am. We’re in a positive mood again after much needed caffeine!’ Mr MacPherson tweets early the next morning.
Later that evening, however, another tweet pops up with a dramatic change of mood.
@EXP2A: ‘We are sad to announce that 2 members’ injuries developed to the point of needing medical attention #DickensTrek.’
So what happened?
After I left, Ms Ireland explains, ‘The countryside started to get really pretty. It was raining when we got to the sleeping spot. We crawled into a bush. It was either get wet or get bitten, and we decided to get bitten.’
And bitten they were - by the various, unidentified insects which already called the bush home.
‘It was really quite awful,’ Mr MacPherson says. ‘What woke me up was a slug falling on my face.’
Ms Ireland jumps in: ‘They were everywhere. In our bags. I’ve still got slugs in my sleeping bag.’ When I can’t help recoiling, she adds: ‘They were only little ones.’
Although the night was like something out of a horror film, the group’s enthusiasm wasn’t sapped. Ms Ireland even describes the next morning as ‘gorgeous’. ‘We were up with the chorus,’ Mr MacPherson says cheerfully.
Ms Ireland adds: ‘It became all forested then. There was still no pavement, not until after Hazelmere. Hazelmere’s apparently the beginning of civilisation as far as pavements are concerned.’
As the afternoon wore on, however, it became clear that creepy crawlies were the least of their woes. Mr Milburn, usually the fastest walker, had fallen to the back of the group.
They’d covered another 15 miles during the day, arriving in Guildford’s packed streets by 6pm. Sitting down on a grass bank for a rest, the severity of the problem became painfully clear.
‘Bradley had been talking about his back for 24 hours,’ Ms Ireland explains. ‘But we thought he was just whinging. Then he showed us. He had yellow, pus-filled blisters [from carrying a backpack].’
‘My feet are worse,’ interjects Mr Milburn.
A decision had to be made - could the walk continue?
‘We had the option for some to continue. But when you’re working on a team project, it’s not good,’
Ms Ireland explains. Plus, exP2A’s first project is due to start soon: the fitness group which Mr Martin is to lead. If his injuries got worse, it would be a major setback.
The group had reached Guildford. Luckily, they were able to buy cheap tickets, and collapse on the train. ‘We’re really disappointed that we had to stop. But, we’re really proud of what we achieved,’ says Mr MacPherson. That includes raising £250 towards their goal of £1,500, to kick-start exP2A.
Today, the group make it to the end of the road: Dickens’ gravestone, in the middle of the splendour of Westminster Abbey. They are visibly moved.
@EXP2A: ‘Westminster Abbey sent shivers through the team today! We were all in awe of the sheer splendour and rich history #DickensTrek.’
Self-sufficiency is a moral and practical imperative for these founding members of exP2A, so leaving the trek early was a hard decision.
‘It was disappointing,’ says Ms Ireland. ‘But we’re mostly proud of ourselves.’
Rising to the challenge
Even the ethos of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps has its limits. Tasks that may seem simple to the housed can be incredibly challenging for homeless people, Ms Ireland explains, talking through examples like making phone calls to social workers.
This applies to sponsored walks as well. It’s all very well going on a trek if you can go to an outdoors shop and spend hundreds of pounds on hiking boots, tents, and so on. But this wasn’t an option for exP2A’s walkers.
Yet the four continued through hazards that would put off many a casual charity supporter. If determination is anything to go by then raising the rest of the £1,500 needed to get started should be a cinch.