MANY people believe that homelessness is a lifestyle choice and others don’t even notice that it’s a problem in Dorset, a seemingly affluent part of the country.

The Dorset Echo teamed up with Weymouth homeless charity Soul Food to raise awareness about the plight of the rough sleeper.

And there are a surprising number of them in South Dorset.

Echo reporters Emma Walker and Rachel Stretton headed to Weymouth town centre on one Saturday night to find out what it is like.

ACCORDING to the borough council there are eight rough sleepers in Weymouth, Dorchester and Bridport.

But our night sleeping outside St Mary’s Church in Weymouth town centre told a different story.

Four homeless people spent time talking to us during our awareness sleep-out and they said the figures are much higher.

There are at least 10 rough sleepers in and around Dor-chester, according to one woman who has spent seven years living on the streets.

And Soul Food outreach worker Angie Barnes said there were 12 known in Weymouth.

This isn’t even to mention the dozens of others who stay out of busy areas and go undetected.

“If a rough sleeper is awake and sitting up during a count by the council’s outreach service then they aren’t classed as homeless,” Angie revealed.

And that’s not to forget the thousands waiting on housing lists or in battles over benefits that are on the brink of losing their homes.

There are even those who spend their lives moving from friends’ sofas to shop doorways and are never officially counted.

It soon became clear that this is a problem in Dorset.

Sleeping out for one night only is not an insight into what it is like for those who spend their lives on the streets – that’s because I knew that at 6am I’d be able to go home.

Our group was a mix of Soul Food volunteers and former homeless people and our aim was to recognise those pushed to the outskirts of society in a tough economic climate.

Family troubles, financial turmoil, relationship problems and addiction can make it a short walk from a home to the streets.

Around 75 per cent of addiction comes from being on the streets and is not the cause. Drink and drugs makes the time go quicker for many.

“Mental health issues also quite often play a part,” says Angie.

For a rough sleeper it never comes to an end – and often feelings of shame mean they never ask for help.

The homeless people we spoke to told us that they often frequent shop doorways, benches along The Esplanade and skips.

One man had started sleeping rough following the death of his wife five months ago. His life had fallen apart and he couldn’t see a way out.

They told us that without an address it’s impossible to get a job and nor are they able to meet the requirements for the housing list.

Angie told me that problems lie in people’s prejudices and lack of understanding about homelessness – and in local government bureaucracy.

Street brawls, domestics and drunken revellers made our night outside go quickly but I’m not sure I’d survive out there for more than a week.

Fundraising puts heart and soul into charity

THERE’s nothing like the look of contempt you get when you’re on the streets begging for money.

But our efforts raised £178 to keep charity Soul Food going for a month.

Here are just some of the reactions from people in Weymouth.

One passerby shouted: “I’ve been there, seen it and done it – I’ve sorted myself out – have you?”

When Soul Food volunteer Ross Browning replied: “I’m trying and that’s a great reason to put money in the pot.” The man walked off.

Another man stopped to tell us: “If people don’t want to be homeless then they shouldn’t be.”

One woman said: “Is homelessness even a problem in Dorset?”

Another man went to put money in the pot before his wife quickly stopped him.

One young reveller told us that he ‘didn’t believe in charity or helping others’.

Around eight police officers passed without making a donation.

The majority of people were generous and one reveller stopped to say Soul Food had changed his life. Bargain Brand Food Outlet and Fish n Fritz chip shop also helped.

Trevor's Story

“IF you’re not scared, you’re stupid” – Trevor Green spent 19 years living on the streets.

He moved to Weymouth in 2007 and now volunteers at Soul Food.

The 53-year-old said: “I was on the streets from the age of 17 to 36. I feel exhausted.”

Mr Green spoke of the ‘close shaves’ he’d had – including being thrown into the back of a van and beaten up.

He admitted turning to alcohol to help him get through the tougher times.

He said: “Drink makes the time go quicker. I wouldn’t survive a week out there now.

“I would meet women just to have a place to stay.

“It was because of a relationship that went wrong that I ended up on the streets.

Life is looking up for Trevor now, who met his sister Angie Barnes in 1999.

The siblings found each other when Angie and her mum went looking for Trevor, who was adopted.

Ross's story

“MY pride wouldn’t let me admit that I was an addict” – Ross Browning spoke about his life as a drug addict on the streets.

The 33-year-old said: “I was raised in a nice house with my parents.

“My mum had a cake shop and at the end of the day we would give a bag full of food to a lady called Bridget who worked at the local soup kitchen.

“It was 12 years after that when I saw Bridget again – but this time it was me using the kitchen.”

He added: “Drugs and alcohol took over. I spent 10 years of my life on drugs. In a way I chose to be homeless.

“My family had had enough of me which was fair enough – I just wanted more drugs. I would do whatever it took to get more.”

Ross spent time in and out of prison before he moved to Weymouth to attend rehab.

He is now attending college, has a two bedroom flat and has been in recovery for three years.

Lesley's story

A WOMAN who has been sleeping on the streets for seven years spoke about her life.

Lesley Jones told the Echo she has problems with drink and is one of 10 rough sleepers in the county town.

She uses The Hub, a Dorchester homeless service that provides a safe place.

She said: “It is really difficult to get housed here if you’re not from the area.

“I have a daughter who has her own life and I would never want to impose on her. More awareness should be made and more support is needed.”

She told of how frightening it is living on the streets and how she dreams of her own home.

Mental health issues meant she felt unable to live alone at her previous home.

She visits her daughter’s home to keep clean and eat.

There are currently three people who regularly access The Hub and many more drop-in uncounted on an ad-hoc basis.

Angie's story

WEYMOUTH’S Angie Barnes was homeless for about a year and is a recovering alcoholic.

Her community work is a vital unpaid service and she’s often the first point of contact for the vulnerable.

Angie said: “If you want to learn about life, then spend an unknown indefinite time on the streets.”

Angie had a home, a fiancé and a business but sadly she got scammed by some advertising companies and her business started to suffer.

She added: “I changed my priorities to concentrate on my partner who was also very disabled.

“Then, my housing benefit got mucked up. My landlord decided that he wanted me out.

"I found myself out on the street and I'm like, hang on, how did this happen?”

Sadly, as soon as she was without a home her partner left her and she later made several attempts on her life.