In an idyllic stretch of countryside, Benny Clapp has made his home in a tent beside a river near Canterbury in Kent, a region known as the “Garden of England”.
The 38-year-old has been homeless for more than a year, ever since his wife committed suicide in December 2017.
A former chef, Clapp suffers from depression and is incapable of working. He has lost almost everything — except for some clothes, a tent and a few blankets.
“It is safe. If anyone comes, I can hear them,” he told AFP, as he tried to dry his damp duvet on top of his tent.
Inside the tent, the low temperatures have turned the condensation into frost.
Clapp said he lived in the countryside for his own security but has to go into Canterbury every couple of weeks to pick up a disabled allowance of £50 (57 euros, $66) a week.
– ‘Fear of other people’ –
David Burt, a 48-year-old with a charcoal-grey beard, is staying in an emergency shelter because of the winter freeze but would also prefer rural isolation.
The former convict, who was in prison for drugs and is originally from Ramsgate, another town in Kent, said he was still traumatised by a night-time robbery.
Burt said it had added to his “fear of other people”, adding: “I feel more reassured when I am far from other people”.
Emma McCrudden, a social worker with the charity Catching Lives, has made it her mission to reach out to these homeless people living isolated lives.
“My job is try to engage with rough sleepers, to introduce them to other services in and around Canterbury that are appropriate for their needs,” she said.
Thanks to tip-offs from police and hikers, she tours Kent villages looking for the rural homeless.
She helps them attend doctors’ appointments, receive treatment for mental health and find accommodation.
Despite her efforts, she said there is “quite a large population that we never get to meet”.
“They live in outhouses and barns and on farms and in tents because people don’t go to those places,” she said.
– Rough sleepers on the rise –
McCrudden hopes that the homeless themselves will get in touch with her association, which provides daily meals.
Despite the difficulties in calculating the numbers of rural homeless, Catching Lives director Terry Gore said the figures have been “on the rise for a number of years”.
In Canterbury, official government data released on Thursday said there were 33 rough sleepers but Gore said the real number could be more than double.
“The perception that rough sleeping is an urban problem and not a rural one is going to change because you are seeing, in some of the smaller towns, people visibly on the streets,” he said.
Canterbury handles around 1,000 requests for council housing every year. Some 2,400 people are on a waiting list.
In his freezing tent, Clapp said he had no hope of receiving accommodation. But help could be at hand.
An old friend who found out about his situation got in touch recently to tell him he had a place for him to live in Liverpool, a port city in northwest England.
Clapp is now waiting for his next disabled allowance to afford the bus ride to Liverpool to his new home.