Love in the Time of Homelessness
Beyond the commercialisation of Valentine's Day, human connection is far from a luxury. Our writer speaks to two couples for whom love, support and partnership are vital
It doesn’t surprise me that Jen is still friends with one of her old prison officers. “He told me that my attitude had definitely changed for the better,” she laughs. Jen’s laugh is one of the features that make her so likeable. She invites me to sniff her neck to see if I can still smell a spritz of Alien perfume, and her animated eyes are brought to life by a stroke of blue eyeliner. Even though I must have passed Jen at least 60 times when I worked in Manchester's Northern Quarter, this is the first time I’ve sat down and spoken to her. Even though she’s visibly shivering and needs to put the hours in to get her food for the evening, she can’t keep a smile off her face. She later tells me that she’s so happy because she’s fallen in love.
Although the Northern Quarter might be home to a strong vinyl selection and watering holes for a pint or six on payday, its streets are also the home of two of the city’s homeless couples. Although homelessness comes as no surprise to Mancunian residents – 2000 people are said to be without permanent accommodation in the area – little regard is given to the people that are carrying on with their lives as normally as possible on the streets.
Jen’s story serves as poignant reminder that human connection is far from a luxury.
“We all want someone to sleep next to at night, and we’re no different,” she said. “If it weren’t for the boys, me and Rosie” – a friend living close by with partner Dean – “would have to cuddle up together. Saying that, it’s great to have them on our side.”
Jen has been in and out of prison since her father kicked her out when she was 17 years old. Leaving Styal three months ago after a two-year sentence, Jen bumped into her partner-to-be, Mark, on the street.
“I caught his eye when he was grafting, and he told me how different I looked,” she said. “I was addicted to heroin, so the last time he saw me I looked like a rake. I’ve put a lot on since.”
Mark made her an offer a few weeks later. She was drawn to his “earnest and protective nature.”
“He took me to one side and said: ‘Jen, if you get with me, all I will ever do is look after you. You will never have to graft again and I’ll look after us.’ Next thing I know, I’ve grabbed his hand and I’m walking off with him.”
After experiencing a hard life with addiction, Jen is getting clean thanks to Mark’s help. “I am still using, but it’s about a quarter of what I used to,” she said. “Mark doesn’t touch anything, and every week, I’m cutting down. For the first time in my life, I feel safe.”
When Mark joins us later, he fumbles for Jen’s hand and kisses her on the cheek. “He told me he loved me so quickly,” she laughs. “We want to get married in the future. Not a big church thing, it costs far too much money, but something in a registry office, maybe. Just with a few people that we care about. We’re both 40 this year!”
The first throes of romance are etched all over their faces; but just the tent opposite are a couple who have managed to keep it steady in spite of the realities of keeping a relationship alive while trying to survive. Although Rosie and Dean’s 15-year age gap might not suggest they're the world’s most compatible couple, the pair have stayed together for eight years. They said that they “didn’t like each other at first,” but after kissing at a Christmas party they fell in love, and lived together in private accommodation for three years.
In a twist of fate, the pair were evicted from their flat at the same time Dean’s dad died, leaving them no other place to turn but the streets. Temporarily shunted between halfway houses on a street with other homeless people, Rosie told me that they had “never been anywhere like it”.
“I had been using for ten years by this point, and I had never seen anywhere so bad,” she said. “One time we came back to the flat to find that our dirty washing had been sold to a shop up the street to make some cash.”
The pair also have a one-and-a-half year old son, who currently lives with Dean’s mum. “We haven’t seen him for a couple of months, because we don’t want him to see us like this,” said Rosie. “We buy him presents whenever we can, and would love to see him more often. But we want to get a flat, somewhere nice and cosy, a two-bed, where Dean can go back to his football coach training. He’s only 23, and he just needs one more course before he’s qualified.”
It is clear that competition to find accommodation is fierce. Waiting lists are long, and priorities can be easily skewed. The responsibility of splitting funds between two can lead to further strain.
“People meet each other on the streets normally, so we’re quite different in that,” said Rosie.
“We knew one couple who had been together for just two days and they managed to get a room. They got kicked out pretty soon after, but it doesn’t make much of a difference to us.”
When I ask them how they’ve managed to keep it going for so long, the pair tell me that they’d be “lost without each other.”
Rosie said: “Dean does get easily led, so we bicker from time to time, but I think that’s normal. We have separate tents so we can have space when we need it, but we know that we’re there for each other. My best advice? Don’t let the little things come between you.”
As I’m walking away, Jen is pulling Mark off the bench to meet one of her old friends. It reminds me of that moment so many of us share when we introduce a lover to the people we care about the most. Nearby, Rosie and Dean are sat, arms around each other at the foot of their tent. They are making the world work for them, in the most vulnerable of spaces.