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Canterbury rough sleeper reveals shocking abuse faced by homeless people in Kent

Michael Cordes has been urinated on, set fire to, attacked as he slept, and robbed of his most treasured possessions while living homeless.

But the 38-year-old says the brutality he has experienced is tragically not uncommon for rough sleepers in Kent.

Michael Cordes tells of his shocking experience and why he has decided to speak out

He is now speaking out to raise awareness, in the hope his story could lead to a change in the way people on the county's streets are treated.

Michael previously lived in a house in Canterbury, but moved out at the end of May following the breakdown of a relationship, and found he had nowhere else to turn.

On his first night on the streets, he slept behind Canterbury Crown Court, but awoke to find thieves had stolen a large amount of cash he had brought with him.

The next night, he was heartbroken to find his treasured motorbike had been stolen from where he had chained it up in Burgate.

Michael Cordes
Michael Cordes

"I got myself a tent and remembered previously seeing homeless people camped outside Wilko," said Michael.

"There was no one there, so I thought I'd pitch up for the night."

But he was woken in the darkness by two men urinating on his tent as they returned from a night of drinking.

"They told me they were students," he said. "It got a bit heated and they both beat me up while I was on the ground.

"My wallet came out of my pocket and they took it."

Next morning, Michael ventured to get some food and use the bathroom, but returned to find council workers had removed his tent, clothes and other belongings.

"People shout and scream at me every single night..."

"There wasn't even a 24-hour notice," he said. "It was just gone.

"Bedding, wet wipes, mouthwash, toothpaste, clothing - things of value to me, but not to anyone else.

"I was absolutely devastated - I was really, really struggling at this point."

After sourcing a new tent and sleeping bag from an outreach worker, Michael pitched up again, deciding to pack up first thing in the morning.

But he was woken in the middle of the night to things being thrown at his tent.

"It was the same guys as the night before," he said.

"My first tent was blue, but I'd now got a green one.

"So they're not targeting me - they're targeting homeless people.

"They were throwing chicken nuggets, saying they don't pay their taxes for scum like me on the streets."

The next night, the same two men targeted him for a third time.

"They were trying to urinate on my tent and were giving me abuse," he said. "A little scuffle ensued, I dialled 999 and they went.

"But I didn't sleep that night. I was really frightened, thinking 'what next?'"

Scared, Michael moved his tent to the doorway of the vacant Poundworld building in the High Street.

"It's private property so the council can't remove my tent, and there's CCTV so you get the illusion you might be safe," he explained.

Michael pitched up his tent outside the former Poundworld premises in Canterbury High Street
Michael pitched up his tent outside the former Poundworld premises in Canterbury High Street

"There's also a public toilet and a drinking water fountain nearby. If I lose the use of those things, I've lost my humanity haven't I? I've lost everything."

But there too, Michael has received abuse on a nightly basis.

By day, he devours books as a way of escaping what goes on in the busy high street around him.

"I feel like I'm in a goldfish bowl where I am," he said. "So I sit there and read two or three books a day so I can just shut everything out."

By night, the city centre is full of loud groups of intoxicated people.

"People shout and scream at me every single night," he said.

"'Get a job, scum, junkie, crackhead' - I try to just blank it out.

"It goes on for hours. Of a weekend, I'll be lucky to get two hours sleep."

Michael recalls an incident that happened one Friday night, when he was awoken by a drunken reveller dragging his tent into the street.

"I jumped out, and saw it was someone that just should have known better," he said.

"He was wearing a tweed-style blazer, nice trousers, nice shoes, very well groomed.

"I just started screaming at him 'are you a big man, picking on a homeless guy that's just trying to get some sleep?' And his mates are going 'go on, bang him'.

"A lovely lady came and split it up, and helped me put my tent back up.

"I really appreciated what she'd done, but I was fighting back the tears.

"I had to shut myself in my tent because I couldn't hold it in - I just started crying and she heard me.

"And that's not something I want people to hear. I'm a grown man."

Sadly, this was far from a one-off incident.

In the early hours of August 13, Michael woke up to being brutally beaten by two passers-by as he lay defenceless in his tent.

"I was asleep," he said. "They really gave me a beating.

"I was kicked in the stomach and the face.

"They took my clothes, bedding, money, and they destroyed my tent."

Staff at a nearby hotel heard the commotion and dialled 999, and as Michael waited for police to arrive he fell asleep on top of his ruined tent, exhausted.

His voice broke as he recalled: "I heard someone go past and they just said 'piss-head'.

"I got a bit of card and wrote on it 'not drunk, not begging, beaten senseless at 4am'."

Michael had already been feeling extremely low, but this incident left him suicidal.

When other homeless people arrived that day and began hassling him about drugs as he sat reading, he decided to leave.

"Someone with a can of deodorant and a lighter was trying to set fire to my tent with me in it..."

"I don't do drugs, and they wouldn't leave me alone," he said. "I had to just walk away."

He decided to walk the 16 miles to the QEQM hospital in Margate to seek help for his mental health, travelling throughout the night.

"The nurse there was lovely," he said. "I explained what had happened and that I'm really struggling mentally.

"Then I was assessed by the mental health team. I said 'I can't take it any more'. And I was told 'your problem is housing, it's not mental health'.

"So I just walked out. It was like speaking to a brick wall."

Frightened to return to Canterbury, Michael spent almost a week sleeping rough in Thanet.

But without access to running water, showers or hot meals, he jumped on a train back to Canterbury, to his old tent outside Poundworld.

"The zip had been broken, there was a big slash down the side of it, and inside there were power tools, a dash cam, a handbag, a load of stolen gear, and a couple of knives," he said.

"I phoned the police and they got the items.

"Everybody passing by was casting judgment, thinking I'd been out breaking into cars rather than thinking I'm doing the right thing."

A few nights ago, a man broke into Michael's tent.

"He stole my tobacco, a hat, and the most expensive possession I have left, which is very tragic: a Tommy Hilfiger jumper," he said.

"It's the only decent possession I've got left and he took it."

But the worst thing Michael has experienced happened just last Monday, at about 1am.

"I always sleep with my tent door open in case I need to escape, but I had the door closed as I was getting changed into my pyjamas," he explained.

"I suddenly saw a great big flame appear.

"Someone with a can of deodorant and a lighter was trying to set fire to my tent with me in it.

"I opened the door straight away and my hand got burnt, and I really lost it at that point.

Michael was left with hand injuries after someone allegedly tried to set fire to his tent
Michael was left with hand injuries after someone allegedly tried to set fire to his tent

"It was three late teens.

"I was just like 'come on then, fight me'.

"And one of them tried to stab me - he went for me with a knife."

Michael immediately called the police, and a 15-year-old has since been charged with possession of a pointed article.

"Emotionally, that will never leave me," he said.

"My hand's slowly healing. I keep as clean as I can, but in my situation it's hard to stay immaculately clean."

The horrific incident came just three months after another homeless person was targeted in the same way.

In June, a man in his 40s suffered burns to his hands when his tent in Toddler's Cove was torched while he slept inside.

An arsonist had poured accelerant on the shelter, before setting it alight.

Michael says he has been offered accommodation at a charity-run accommodation in Longport.

But he found the accommodation dirty and riddled with drugs and left after one night, deciding he is "better off in a doorway".

This week, Michael was moved on from Poundworld as its doorway was boarded up, and has been forced to pitch his tent elsewhere in the high street.

Michael packs up his things as he is moved on from outside the former Poundworld site in Canterbury High Street
Michael packs up his things as he is moved on from outside the former Poundworld site in Canterbury High Street

A voice for the voiceless

Michael is determined to see public attitudes towards homeless people change.

"People need to appreciate that whatever's brought that person to where they are now, they're still a person," he said.

"They still have the same rights as anyone else.

"People need to be a little less judgmental.

"Some people change their bag to the other hand as they walk past, and things like that hurt. We're not going to snatch your bag off you.

"Those attitudes need to change. People just think we're an underclass and we're not. We've got ex-service personnel out here, people that have fought for this country, and people don't see that.

"It doesn't matter if they've got a drug problem or a drink problem - they're still human beings.

"I'm a strong guy, and if some of the things that have happened to me had happened to some of the other guys, it would have killed them."

Michael worked as a heating engineer for just shy of 20 years.

But in 2019 he suffered a head injury in a car accident, and has since suffered memory problems that mean he is unable to work with gas.

He now carries out odd jobs for people he meets on the street - such as gardening and helping people move. He is paid in items he needs instead of in cash, for fear for being robbed.

Michael Cordes has been sleeping rough in Canterbury for several months
Michael Cordes has been sleeping rough in Canterbury for several months

He says he is always grateful for items such as food and books donated by passers-by, but he never begs for cash.

"Us genuine rough sleepers don't walk up and down the high street asking for money, but that's a brush we get tarred with," he said.

Michael dreams of retraining as a hairdresser.

"But I need stability in my life to go to college, and I don't know where that's going to come from," he said.

"So at the moment, I'm campaigning for the other guys that are out here and I'm being their voice.

"I've got to be their voice - this stuff's got to stop happening. I've got to stand up.

"Till my dying breath I won't stop, until something changes for them.

"Because it's not fair - it really isn't."

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