Bed used to be a public toilet floor for Karen Wilkinson. She talks to SARAH FIELDEN about the hell of sleeping rough and how she turned her life around.
Sleeping on the streets and in shop doorways, Karen Wilkinson grew tired of being kicked by passers-by, drunk from a night in the pub.
Instead she began saving 20 pence each evening, so she could sleep under hand dryers in locked public toilets where she could be warm and safe until morning.
The 43-year-old knows only too well the reality of sleeping rough, spending parts of her life on and off the streets and battling addiction.
But today, Karen holds down a 40-hour-a-week job and has a permanent home, thanks to the support she received when she arrived in Preston.
Karen, who lived in Southport at the time, says: “It was horrible.
“I would be sleeping in a doorway minding my own business and late-night drinkers would come back.
“One night I was lying in a doorway with covers over my head and they decided it would be fun to kick me.
“When I sat up and they realised I was a female, they said ‘I’m so, so sorry’ and threw a fiver at me - as if that would make it better.
“So then I got into the idea of going into toilets you put 20p in.”
She explains: “I would make sure I had 20p and get into the toilet before 7pm when it was locked and sleep in there all night.
“I could lock myself in, it was warm, I put the hand dryer on and slept there.”
Karen last year revealed to the Evening Post her experiences of a drug and alcohol addiction, and her relationship with a violent partner.
She talked about the times she spent in and out of jail and the spiral of addiction, crime and homelessness.
But Karen said her life had now been “100 per cent turned around” following the help from city services.
She was moved to a bail hostel in Preston from Southport after leaving Styal Prison.
She explains: “I had four months there, and then I had to get out.
“I thought I was going to have to go back on the streets, but they told me about Emmaus the homeless charity.
“I came down and had an interview and I thought it was a good idea.
“Now I have to work a 40-hour week, so I’m not worrying about slipping back into old habits.
“I’ve been here 16 months and I’ve become a community assistant.
“If anyone feels they’ve got a problem and they don’t feel they can talk to staff, they come and talk to me. In Preston there’s Emmaus, Recycling Lives, Foundations - there’s loads of different options - and they all work together to help people out.
“I feel like it’s a lot better, there’s more support for people on the streets than there is in other town.
“It’s the support from the city that’s helped me turn my life around.
“From the bail hostel to probation and finding out about this place and the help to get in.
“My life has been 100 per cent turned around.”
Despite the success of city organisations, council leaders feel the problem of homelessness can only get worse as benefit reforms are introduced, and charity bosses have seen a rise in those needing help.
Community manager at Emmaus, Mark Channing, says: “In the last five years of working within Preston within the homeless sector I’ve seen a massive increase in people from all walks of life and backgrounds presenting themselves as homeless.
“People from second year out of university to relationship breakdowns, unemployment and redundancy.
“I just think it’s very difficult for people to get into social housing if they’ve got previous debt.
“It’s something that’s happened right across the board within society.
“There’s a lot more poverty, and it comes off the back of poverty.”