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Paul Dexon describes life on the streets of Canterbury

By Matt Jackson

With a new report claiming half of all rough sleepers have mental health issues, reporter Matthew Jackson went to meet one homeless sufferer, who opened up about his struggles.

Paul Dexon isn’t a well man.

It’s well past 11am on a sunny summer’s day and the coughing fits, the shivering, the fever and the migraines have severely limited Paul’s morning intake of beer.

“I know I must be unwell, I’ve only been able to have one this morning, by now it would usually be four.”

It’s not just the physical pain for Paul, 46. It’s been six months since the love of his life died, since he became homeless and began battling severe depression, leading to six or seven suicide attempts.

Homeless Paul Dexon on life on the streets in Canterbury
Homeless Paul Dexon on life on the streets in Canterbury

His arms bear testament to this. Both are covered in deep protruding scars.

“It’s like I think if I hurt myself, it will help in some strange way; either that or it ends, which is what I wanted.

“I’m in a bad place, every day it feels like it’s all caving in on me – life is tough.”

Irish-born Paul gave up the village life in his home country to take up construction work in London in the early 1990s.

His alcoholism was at this point under control: work paid well, the social life was varied and he was living with his wife-to-be in a plush part of Chelsea.

Alcohol, which Paul freely admits he uses to excess – a “good” day sees him consume at least eight cans of Special Brew – killed his wife six months ago.

He points to a tattoo of her name, which is covered with a small scar.

“Just thinking about it is too much. We both drank too much, we both should have got help but we didn’t.”

About eight years ago Paul was laid off for the final time.

At this point the early signs of depression hit. Struggling to get out of bed in the morning, dark thoughts, even more booze and social isolation all became regular fixtures in Paul’s life.

With no name on the flat’s lease, he was left homeless when his wife died in early March.

Homeless, bereaved and depressed, he made the well- trodden pilgrimage to Canterbury. He says he knew a few people in the area and felt a compulsion to “be safe, at all costs”.

Paul shows me where home has been for the past six months, a cardboard box some 20 metres from the Cricketers pub on the high street. He sleeps next to his brother, who joined him four months ago after a similar family bereavement.

“When you feel rotten, you need to be around people you know.

“There are maybe 20 of us who sleep rough; I meet up with them most mornings.

“I stay every night with my brother just to make sure I’m safe.”

The sheer size of Paul would be enough, I presume, to ward off any potential issues but Paul insists this isn’t the case.

Homeless person living on street. Stock pic.
Homeless person living on street. Stock pic.

“Last Saturday I was fast asleep and someone walked past, kicked me and then spat on my head.”

The close-knit group Paul calls family spend the day helping each other, talking about their pasts and sharing what little they have.

“I think if people came and spoke with us they would see what we were like and that’s just decent people, trying to get by.”

Although he says the people of the city are generous and understanding, he claims the support he needs is non-existent for homeless people.

He claims mental health is a curse among rough sleepers, offset only by company and, “regretfully”, alcohol.

“I can only describe it as being trapped in your body, feeling worthless and never happy.

“You end up drinking to dull it out but it’s always there, every day and every night.

“The charity workers are great but there are too many of us and nowhere near enough support – we only really have each other.”

To those sipping coffee watching Paul pass, his scruffy bag looks like his only possession. After speaking to him, it becomes clear he carries much more baggage around with him.

A spokesman for homeless charity Porchlight said: “Almost half of the people we help on the streets have a mental health need.

Canterbury and Whitstable Labour MP Rosie Duffield
Canterbury and Whitstable Labour MP Rosie Duffield

“Sometimes their homelessness was a result of struggling with mental ill-health and being unable to get the support they needed.

In other cases, they don’t realise they have a mental health need but we can recognise the signs and help them get a diagnosis which will put them on the path to escaping the streets. This support continues in our hostels and shared housing.

“We use a psychologically informed approach to help people develop a greater understanding of their behaviour and relationships with others, and to regain their independence.”

“I think if people came and spoke with us they would see what we were like and that’s just decent people, trying to get by" - Paul Dexon

MP Rosie Duffield said: “I am appalled by the number of individuals and families I have already met who have been made homeless and deserve the help of both the city and the state to make a fresh start.

“Excellent charities such as Catching Lives work hard to help those on the streets but we need to think bigger.

“We need an ambitious policy for social and council housing; we need a roll-out of more council-backed rent guarantee and bond schemes and we need to stop the huge inflation of rents by greedy landlords.

“Truly affordable housing needs to be built in Canterbury and the many new developments planned that are simply out of reach of those most in need.”

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