Rural homelessness: ‘There’s a lot of kind people in Steyning’

Despite the hardships, West Sussex’s countryside has offered peace and security for the homeless.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 11:30 am
Updated Monday, 12th April 2021, 6:53 pm

Rolling hills, flowery meadows and quaint village life are not normally associated with homelessness. But it affects rural communities, too.

According to St Mungo’s, a non-profit organisation, rough sleeping in the countryside has risen by 65 per cent since 2010. However, with many tucked away in remote locations, the problem is largely hidden.

No one can ignore the harsh realities of homelessness and the problems it creates.

The graveyard which Twigs called home

Yet, one local 51-year-old man, who calls himself Twigs, offers a different perspective.

After falling on hard times, he has slept rough on and off since 1997, working across Britain as a shepherd, tractor driver, crofter and musician.

Over the last five years, Twigs has called Steyning home.

Having once worked as a mechanic in the village, he came here to “get away from the hecticness of London.

Twigs' makeshift dining table

“I always found it to be quite a peaceful place.”

On the streets in the capital, Twigs recounted that he felt unsafe and had experienced people throwing eggs at him and stealing his personal belongings.

In Steyning he felt “much safer” and even could leave his valuables in his tent for days on end, joking “nobody mugs you up a tree.”

Yet, there was something more malicious Steyning offered refuge from.

“In London, they sent me to emergency housing, and I thought do I really want to go and live with a load of addicts and drunks, if I am trying to get away from all that.

“I just want to be out the way … away from all the drugs, violence and chaos. Until I can sort myself out.”

Of course, his life is dogged by many hardships. But being homeless in Steyning has given Twigs an affinity with the natural world.

“You get the foxes turning up, there was a little robin that used to fly in my tent, I’d feed it some crumbs and it would perch on the end of my sleeping bag. I’d hear barn owls calling to one another late at night.”

This, he said, had brought him great comfort.

“We all get lonely sometimes, but then how are you meant to be lonely when you’ve got a tiny robin that flies inside your tent and says hello. You know, it’s quite sweet.

“Or maybe I’m just an old romantic,” he laughed.

Now that he has been settled in temporary accommodation due to the pandemic, Twigs said that he “missed” sleeping outside, although hot running water was a “God send.”

“When they do give you a place, it becomes so lonesome, there’s nothing, suddenly you’re in a box on your own.”

Yet things weren’t always so pleasant. There’s also been the odd strange encounter.

One night when he was sleeping in a graveyard, Twigs awoke to see flashing lights, resembling lightsabres, in the distance. It was a group of ghost hunters who told him they had received reports of a sighting in the area.

“That’s probably me sleeping in a tent round the corner,” he replied.

With access to support services more restricted in rural areas, Twigs explained that, bar a small minority, the locals more than compensate.

“There’s a lot of kind people in Steyning.”

Despite always saying that he “doesn’t want or need anything”, he said “little angels suddenly turn up who bring you a bag of food or buy some sandwiches.”

Before Christmas, someone left a miniature Christmas pudding – complete with sprig of holly – and a five-pound note wrapped up in a ribbon at the entrance of his tent.

“It was like magic,” he recalled.

“To those who don’t like to see homelessness in their area,” said Twigs, “all you need to do is stop and have a conversation with me.

“Don’t just look the other way.”