SPECIAL REPORT: Living rough on streets of Peterborough at Christmas

Busker Ed Walker EMN-161219-182545009

Busker Ed Walker EMN-161219-182545009

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Give up your dog or be homeless – that was the stark choice Mick Holmes and Ed Walker said they faced.

Both men now spend their days in Peterborough city centre relying on the generosity of passers-by after putting their pets before a place to stay.

Mark Cook. EMN-161219-182745009

Mark Cook. EMN-161219-182745009

They are just two of the growing number of beggars, rough sleepers and buskers dotted around the city’s biggest shops, restaurants, bars and hotels.

According to housing charity Shelter there are 600 homeless people living in the city, and the Peterborough Telegraph went to speak to some of them to find out their stories and how they had ended up in their current positions.

Sitting next to Argo Lounge with his greyhound Patches was Big Issue seller Mick, a former self-employed window cleaner from Westwood.

He said Peterborough City Council are “as much use as a chocolate fireguard. One of the things I was told was to give my dog up, then they can house me. I said to that, ‘would you give your kids up’?”

Big Issue seller Mick Holmes with his dog in St Peter's Arcade EMN-161219-182711009

Big Issue seller Mick Holmes with his dog in St Peter's Arcade EMN-161219-182711009

Mick spends most nights sleeping in farmland between Eye and Newborough. After 18 months of rough sleeping since splitting with his partner he says: “I want what any normal person wants - a roof over my head, to be working.”

Mick can spend his day listening to busker Ed who often plays his guitar outside HSBC in Bridge Street and goes home to his boat every night.

Ed said he will be content to spend Christmas on the River Nene with just his pets Bitsy (15) and Floyd (4). Bitsy is a rescue Jack Russell Cross who Mick has had for 11 years.

“I was told to get rid of my animals or be homeless,” he said. “I did not rescue her just to give her up because it’s inconvenient for the council.”

Now homeless for two-and-a-half years since social services recovered the house he was living in from its owner, Ed said he was given his current boat home by a passer-by who he got to know, although it has no engine or electricity.

“As long as I do not have to walk into the dole office I’m winning,” he added.

The 46-year-old was a popular figure with passers-by who knew him, as was Mark Cook who spends most of time in his wheelchair outside The Bull Hotel in Westgate.

‘Sofa surfer’ Mark has called upon the generosity of his friends, and he acknowledges:“There are some people sleeping in tents so I’m one of the lucky ones.

“There are some really good-hearted people out here. I get coffee given to me every hour and charities come out and give you blankets.”

Mark said he became homeless after falling out with his ex-partner whose home he lived at. He added that he was waiting for financial help from the Department for Work And Pensions but that it was late.

The council, he said, put him up in a hostel,but he left because of loneliness. “If I had stuck it out I would probably have got a place,” he said.

The 42-year-old will now spend Christmas Day at the Salvation Army with his partner. “We’ve got each other and that’s what counts,” he added.

Another rough sleeper the PT spoke to, Dean Simpson, said he camps out in Priestgate because: “There’s nowhere for me to go.”

The council will now introduce a Public Space Protection Order to ban begging in the city centre so fines can be issued. Currently, only aggressive begging can be tackled.

From January 1, 2014 to July 26, 2016, there were 186 incidents of begging reported to the police, and twice in the last two years a guide dog has been attacked by a busker’s dog, resulting in their retirement.

A council spokeswoman said: “No one has to give up their dog to have the chance of accommodation. If a homeless rough sleeper accepts hostel accommodation we make arrangements for their dog to go into kennels until the individual finds a permanent home.”

What help is available

On Christmas Day, the Salvation Army Citadel at 1203 Bourges Boulevard is hosting a lunch which Mayor of Peterborough Cllr David Sanders will attend. From 1pm Extended Hands of Peterborough will host a lunch at St Mary’s Church, New Road.

On Christmas Eve, homeless people can receive a meal being put on by Youngsters Unity at Unity 27, Norfolk Street U3A, PE1 2NP. The dinner starts at 8pm.

Food and drink, including items which can be taken away, can be donated from 5pm to 8pm today and tomorrow.

Peterborough Soup Kitchen serves food at the Brewery Tap car park in Bright Street every Monday to Friday at 7.30pm and Sundays at 3.30pm.