Character study

To research a character who sleeps rough, novelist Mahsuda Snaith worked with a homelessness charity. The people she met and stories she heard left an impression that lasted beyond writing her novel

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She showed up only a handful of times yet, before I knew it, the homeless girl had taken over.

Let me explain.

Back in 2010, I’d started writing a novel about an isolated woman who joins a group she suspects is a cult. She meets members in a terraced house: an elderly man with a military moustache, an Asian woman with neatly oiled hair and a young woman with red canvas shoes and a friendly smile who, the central character later realises, has been thrown out of the massage parlour above her flat and is sleeping rough on the streets.

The most valuable thing I learnt from was this: homelessness can happen to anyone

This last person, Molly, only came to me after I’d watched a mini-series called Five Daughters. The series focused on the lives of the five victims of the Ipswich murders, all of whom were sex workers and most of whom were drug addicts and vulnerably homed. Watching images of young women in jeans and trainers, arms wrapped around their bodies as they tried to keep warm on winter streets, completely shattered the fancy-dress caricature I had of women in high heels and fishnet tights strutting sassily around red-light districts. I decided I wanted the central character in my novel to have her preconceptions shattered in the same way, for her to see Molly the person first, before making judgements about the world she lived in.

Molly was only in a few scenes but, as I wrote the novel, a strange thing happened – I began to wonder what she was doing when I wasn’t writing about her. I was asking myself questions about where she was staying, who she was meeting, what she was doing. I sketched out scenes in my head that had no place in the novel I was working on. Before I knew it, Molly had taken over my imagination. I was wrong in thinking she was a minor character; Molly needed a whole novel to herself.

But writing that novel wasn’t going to be easy. Although there’s some great autobiographies and biographies about homelessness (The Grass Arena by John Healy, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen, to name a few), there seemed to be a distinct lack of fiction about it. Writers, I believe, should be able to write about anything, but as a British-Bangladeshi woman brought up on a council estate, I already knew about the damaging effects that can be caused to marginalised and often misrepresented groups due to a simple lack of enquiry. If I wanted to go ahead, I was going to have to do a hell of a lot of research.

I began by watching numerous documentaries, reading scores of articles and piles of books but my real education in life on the streets began when I started hearing stories from people who had experienced it. I volunteered at a charity that gives out food to the homeless, then at New Futures, a Leicester-based charity that gives advice, hot meals and shower facilities to sex workers. I did six sessions of training that included how to work the dishwasher and the effects of intravenous drug use (to clarify, not all sex workers use drugs, some brothels will in fact throw workers out if they use, but for many women who work on the streets, addiction is a part of their lives). I also learnt about the challenges of finding accommodation when homeless, the complicated issues with gaining a place in a shelter and how easy it is to slip through the net.

I then worked as a writer-in-residence in a homeless hostel. Going in week by week gave me a close-up insight into the erratic nature of homelessness, the never-ending appointments with different departments (the Social, the Job Centre, the Drug Unit, the Housing Office) and the knock-on effect when a benefit wasn’t paid, or when a resident made contact with a family member that didn’t end well. One woman, who had been so enthusiastic about the writing sessions, reconnected with her family, which led to a downward spiral of not taking her medication. This then triggered mental health issues and heavy drinking off site to the point where she no longer came to sessions because she couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Another woman, determined to get in contact with her children who’d been left in the care of her grandparents, attended every session with diligence. She hardly spoke to anyone at the hostel because she didn’t want to be led down the wrong path and jeopardise her chances of seeing her kids again.

Once I’d started, I found my antennae for stories about the homeless was firmly switched on. I read about a man who’d had warning barriers placed around him while he slept, a sign stuck to the front stating “THIS MAN HAS REFUSED TO TAKE THE OFFER OF THREE NIGHTS IN A HOSTEL”. He’d refused to take the offer because he was on bail for begging in the city the hostel was in and was afraid of going to prison. As well as this, when I told people I was writing a novel about “a homeless girl who goes on a Wizard of Oz-type adventure from Nottingham to Skegness”, they came forward with their own stories of homelessness and those of the people they knew. One person I spoke to had witnessed their mother being killed at a bus stop and had subsequently boomeranged from care homes to prison to mental health wards and hostels. Another had lost her life savings when her children had emptied her accounts.

The most valuable thing I learnt from my research was this: homelessness can happen to anyone. I met people who came from abusive childhoods but also people who had come from loving homes, those who had seen their lives change after a tragic incident: a death, a reversal of fortunes, a mental breakdown or the end of a relationship. Some had been teachers, others business owners, some were ex-army and some had worked three jobs before being evicted from their homes because they still couldn’t afford the rent.

There were also homeless people who had never slept rough – staying in temporary accommodation, hostels and shelters, sofa surfing or working in menial jobs with no pay so they could sleep on their employer’s floor. One man I met lived out of his car, ironed his clothes in garages and went into his office job every day without his colleagues knowing he was homeless. Others who did rough-sleep could be found in tents on shrubland, the floors of abandoned warehouses and the pews of churches. One person slept in a single cubicle public toilet between midnight and 6am because this was the only place he felt safe from abuse. And there is still a lot of abuse targeted at the homeless, as seen by the recent conviction of a man who took a running jump on to a tent where two men slept as his friend filmed him on his phone.

In writing How To Find Home, I wanted to create a character that, on paper, many people would not have much empathy for. Then I wanted to make them root for her. I would take this rough-sleeping former drug addict, former sex worker on a whirlwind adventure that would gradually reveal the jigsaw pieces of her past. I wanted the reader to see Molly not as a statistic but for the messy and beautiful human being she is. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us want.

Now that I’ve finished the novel, I still find it hard to switch off my antennae to stories about the homeless. It dismays me when I hear about people still being branded “intentionally homeless” by housing authorities, especially when they refuse to go back to mentally abusive environments. There also seems to be an alarming rate of people pushed into homelessness because of a failing in the system: those with untreated mental health issues, those with disabilities who’ve had their benefits cut and all those dealing with the mess that is Universal Credit. But I also see positive stories of people coming out of homelessness and thriving, and those doing their best while they’re still on the streets. I recently read in the news about a homeless man who had started a book club in a library up the road from me. I’m already booked in to talk at one of his upcoming meetings.

In the future, I want to help more homeless people tell their own stories by delivering writing workshops, talks and mentoring. The homeless experience is a vital one for us to hear about, not only because it teaches us about the flaws in our systems but also because it shows us how, even when you’re knocked down to the dirt floor, you can still get back up.

How To Find Home by Mahsuda Snaith is out now, published by Doubleday (£14.99 hardback, £9.99 Kindle)

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