Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
Ink is in my blood. Both my parents were journalists; and my father’s parents were journalists. My grandfather, Frank Mitchell, received an OBE for his services to England; first as Head of the News Division for the British Foreign Office in the U.S., then as Chief of the Press and Information Office for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.
I have yet to attain such lofty heights myself, and likely never will; but I initially followed my father’s footsteps into Business Journalism in Ontario, Canada where I served as Managing Editor for two regional business magazines in Hamilton and Niagara. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but I soldiered on and developed a growing interest in Corporate Social Responsibility and the role businesses were playing in helping alleviate society’s woes. I started moving away from providing context to the facts and figures that constitute most business stories; and focusing on the people who were using their business success to tackle the issues that affect us as individuals and as a society.
At the same time I started poking into my family’s history, notably my great, great grandfather, Sir John Kirk. He received a knighthood for his philanthropic work as the Director of the Ragged School Union in London, England. This organization was founded in 1844 to provide free education to those who could not afford it. When the Education Act was passed in England in 1870, the Ragged School Union was suddenly superfluous to requirements and frantically started expanding their philanthropic efforts –basically throwing every strand of charitable spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. They managed to survive as they moved into other areas of charity; and their influence stretched around the world –even to Hamilton, Ontario where I had spent my childhood. John Kirk was a natural media manipulator and proved instrumental in that growth, achieving almost celebrity status amongst Christian and charity groups around the world.
There had been two previous biographies written about him, but they were little more than feel-good public relations pap, almost nausea inducing –and as I quickly discovered, not entirely honest in their portrayal of his work. A lot was brushed under the carpet. The internet opened up research possibilities that were virtually impossible before and enabled me to lift the carpet just enough to see what was hidden underneath. It proved wonderfully messy, both in terms of John Kirk’s personal life and his work. My father and I bonded, not as father and son, but as professional journalists with each salacious revelation. As an award-winning journalist himself, he too knew a good story when he saw one. With my father’s practical, financial and emotional support I dedicated myself full-time to writing “A Knight in the Slums,” a new biography of Sir John Kirk and his work.
But that is not the book I have written –yet. Life, as it does, took an interesting turn.
What inspired you to write your book?
“Rude Awakenings From Sleeping Rough” is my first-person account of that interesting turn.
I returned to England in 2017 to complete the research on Sir John, and within a year found myself homeless on the streets of London with nothing more than a broken suitcase and a scant few possessions. With an ironic nod to literary coincidence, I spent most of that first month in Paddington Station, much like the famous bear that took its name. Sadly, there was no Brown family to pass by and take me in; but the staff of the Station and the businesses within were tremendously helpful and supportive –as many people in the business and service sectors have proven to be. They see and deal with homelessness every day –more than people realize– and despite regularly experiencing the theft, vandalism and abuse that often results, they often take a personal interest and have a genuine desire to help in whatever limited capacity they can.
I don’t refer to Paddington Station directly in the book, but I want to take this opportunity to draw attention to them, and the other unsung heroes –from road-sweepers to store managers– who get no credit for the small acts of kindness and support they quietly provide. They should be empowered and supported to do more: the desire is there. I hope any journalists reading this interview will be inspired to seek out those stories that occur on an almost daily basis. The general public is not as apathetic as we might think; and are capable of providing more practical support than they may realize, free of charity influences and agendas. I own a plush Paddington Bear toy as one of the few fond mementoes of this ordeal and will treasure it to my dying day. I loved that bear as a child and I love him even more as an adult. I would not have survived that first month without the kindness and support I received at Paddington Station.
Eventually I found myself directed to one of the homeless charities in the Westminster area of London, and that is when the real nightmare began. My experiences within the charity system proved more horrific than homelessness itself, and I find myself still trapped in the nightmare three years later. Right from the start they were dishonest about the options that were available, to the point of blatant lies, and refusing to answer questions phrased to elicit a simple “yes” or no”. answer. While completing the paperwork relating to my case, they applied their own filters, often leaving out critical information I was sharing; digging into my family history although it had no relevance to my situation, and insisting they could only help me if I applied for benefits through them. I was frequently encouraged to “play the game” if I wanted to be helped.
I refused. The relationship quickly deteriorated, and I was subjected to severe mental and emotional abuse at the hands of multiple charities. I was eventually forced into housing that was unhygienic and unsafe. The risk of drunken assault by other tenants is so great I frequently find myself sleeping outside more than in. It is in no way the “solution” the charities promote it as being.
During this time I discovered homeless women were being sexually assaulted in London by a man volunteering for many street level charities. The response of every single charity was to decline his volunteer services, and take no further action hoping the problem would simply go away. I disagreed, and informed the police, who also took no action. Word reached the ears of the wrong people and my life was repeatedly threatened. Again, the London Metropolitan Police refused to take any action, at one point threatening to arrest me. I was eventually forced to flee London for fear of my life. Sadly Covid-19 struck, and I was eventually forced to return. This man is still volunteering for charities. And I still live in fear for my safety, from the other tenants within this house, and from the thugs associated with this serial offender -particularly when word of this book’s publication reaches street level.
I was sharing this entire ordeal online with friends back in Canada who were horrified. One close friend, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, owns his own publishing imprint, Stark Publishing. He reached out asking if I would be interested in writing a book about my experiences –partly to help earn the money required to escape this nightmare once and for all, and also to bring attention to these abuses within the charity system. Sadly, none of my experiences are unique. Stories even worse than mine are far too common, and not limited to England. It needs to end.
What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
It is time for governments to put the charity system under the microscope; to investigate the actions that occur behind closed charity doors; and to bring legislative reform and strict regulation to prevent these abuses, not only of the people who turn to these charities in times of desperate need, but of the benefits system itself. There needs to be greater honesty, greater transparency, greater accountability, and increased monitoring in all areas of charity work. And it should be easier for victims of physical, mental, and sexual abuse within the charity system to seek justice.
What drew you into this particular genre?
“Rude Awakenings From Sleeping Rough” is a straight-forward first person account of my experiences within the charity sector. It is not the story of my “journey” per se, but an honest, often uncomfortably graphic account of systematic abuse. Those hoping for any sort of inspiration are going to be sadly disappointed. It was painful to live through; it was painful to write; and it will be painful to read. But it is necessary. My experiences pale in comparison to those of others, but their stories rarely reach the public eye. As a third-generation journalist I was fortunate to inherit and develop the necessary skills to draw attention to these issues.
What is one major misconception that many people have about those forced to live on the streets that you’d want readers to really know and understand?
Don’t allow sympathy to cloud your judgment. It is always wise to avoid letting emotions cloud any decisions you make whether personal or professional. That holds true for any cause you may be inclined to support. It is easy to feel great pity for those who have found themselves living on the streets, but you shouldn’t allow that pity to influence the decisions that are required to bring permanent, sustainable solutions to their plights.
Imagine if your parent, sibling, or child has found themselves on the streets because of alcoholism or drug use. Would you appreciate strangers handing them money that is subsequently used to feed their addiction? Sadly, this is the reality more often than not.
And blindly donating money to charities without doing any research to see how that money is spent often perpetuates, rather than provides any permanent, long-lasting solutions to people’s homelessness. As I know from bitter experience, that money is not always well spent. Far too often people with addictions and serious mental health issues are irresponsibly thrown into living conditions where they simply fuel each other’s addictions, or antagonize each other’s mental conditions. All too often this results in violence both inside and outside the accommodation. As I detail in the book, these housing “solutions” the charities promote are dangerous, violent, and unsafe. Even in the bitter cold of winter I still find myself escaping to the streets in the middle of the night to avoid the violence that suddenly erupts without warning. And that is ignoring the fact the housing itself is often unhygienic and unsafe.
Both the homeless and the charities play on people’s sympathies to get them to open their wallets. Don’t allow that to happen. The homeless are not cuddly helpless waifs. It is a violent, crime-riddled life where physical and sexual assaults are common occurrences; where theft, vandalism, and drug related crimes spread out into the surrounding community, affecting people’s businesses, homes, and their children. And again, as I know from horrific experience, even when homeless women are being raped – by a charity volunteer in this case- the charities and the local authorities take little to no action to put an end to those sexual assaults; and go to great lengths to prevent that information from becoming public knowledge. It isn’t good for the benevolent “image.” My life is still in danger from trying to obtain justice for a woman I know who was sexually assaulted; and the responses from the charities and the London Metropolitan Police have been abominable. It’s as disgusting as the rapes themselves.
What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
Social media has been a lifesaver throughout this ordeal. It was my only connection with the world, particularly friends back in Canada. When I found myself homeless, I immediately made my Facebook account private and used it to maintain those valuable connections. I shared the specifics of my experiences with complete honesty and the rawest of emotions. I ranted; I raved; I cried; I begged for help; I reached out for emotional support on a regular basis –and there was always someone available to provide it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And though we were separated by the Atlantic, they provided their strength and support just as effectively as if we were able to connect in person. I have more than my fair share of close, personal friends –in many cases better friends than I deserve. There are simply too many to list. They saved my sanity, and for that I will always be grateful. And it was on their recommendation that I used those posts to write the book, capturing the pain, the helplessness, and the fear in its unfiltered immediacy.
In terms of developing a readership, I’m not expert enough to offer a valuable opinion. Mark, my publisher, would be able to provide a more informed answer. I simply post on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to bring attention to the book with varied levels of success. However, I’m only reaching established connections –preaching to the choir so to speak. In terms of breaking out of that limited audience –beyond trying to establish a ‘word of mouth’ campaign by asking those connections to share the posts and recommend the book– I’m not having any success at all. Again, Mark has the knowledge and experience to provide any recommendations in that regard.
What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
I’m going to pigeonhole myself as a grumpy old man; but I’m going to state categorically to stop looking for advice and just write. Anything else is just procrastination. And I speak with the authority of a Master Procrastinator.
I’m reminded of the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie where the secret ingredient of Mr. Ping’s Noodle Soup and the secret behind the power of the legendary Dragon Scroll both prove to be nothing. There is no secret or hidden ingredient to writing. You simply commit to doing it. It requires discipline, and a love for the process itself. If either are lacking, the odds are you are not going to succeed.
What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
In all honesty my future still looks quite bleak. One of my aims in writing “Rude Awakenings From Sleeping Rough” is to use the money from the sales to finally escape this horrific living situation I was forced into against my will and establish myself in proper -and safe- living accommodations long enough to obtain proper employment.
But the sales simply aren’t there –particularly here in England. People don’t want to know. I understand the trepidation: it’s reading that’s ‘good for you,’ and that’s never an easy sale. It is a brutally honest and uncomfortably graphic account of abuse and neglect within the charity sector. And there is no “happy ending.”
But that’s the point. The happy endings are few and far between when people become ensnared in the world of homelessness. The “solutions” the charities waste money on promoting are not working –and aggravated by the abuse and neglect within many of the charities themselves. Governments need to step in and put an end to these abuses; not only of the homeless, but of their respective benefits systems. The charity sector needs radical reforms and strict regulation. And the public needs to stop placing their blind faith in these “caring” organizations.
Those aren’t comfortable truths. The general public understandably doesn’t feel comfortable facing them. And if the public doesn’t have the motivation or desire to learn the truth you are trying to impart, it doesn’t matter how well you write; or how strong your intentions to shine a light on that truth, and bring change that is sorely needed –you are simply wasting time, ink, and paper. It is soul-destroying enough to put an end to any future writing endeavours.
To be blunt, without the charity sector being scrutinized and heavily regulated, the homeless will continue to fall victim to their own personal demons; and live at constant risk of abuse, assault or rape with no recourse to justice. I am still trapped in this cycle of homelessness more than three years later despite all my efforts to escape it. And I still live in fear for my personal safety in the housing “solution” the charities forced me into accepting. Quite frankly, the future is a false-hope luxury I, and many others, can’t afford. All we can do is survive day to day and pray this existence doesn’t break us. Without proper charity reform, there is no future for any of us.
About the Author
London born, Canadian raised Peter Mitchell was bumbling his way through a moderately successful career in business journalism when an investigation into a story on Corporate Social Responsibility inspired him to look beyond profit margins and PR into the very real problems faced by society. This inspiration prompted him to dip his toes into a self-confessed Sanity/Vanity project of a biography of his great, great grandfather, Sir John Kirk.
As Secretary of The Ragged School Union, John championed the causes of children, the disabled, and the working poor in Victorian-era London. His influence extended beyond the city limits, and his life proved more interesting than previous biographies revealed. Dust-buried references have surfaced in the most obscure locales, showing the consequences—both good and bad—to the ragged and crippled children John Kirk devoted his life to help.
In 2017, Peter returned to London to complete his research and begin the writing of “A Knight in the Slums.” The past was ready to be mined, and the future was assured. The present, however, took an unpredictable -and darkly ironic—turn. https://c0.pubmine.com/sf/0.0.3/html/safeframe.htmlREPORT THIS AD
A series of unfortunate events transpired, creating a perfect storm of calamities leaving Peter penniless and sleeping rough. He had unwittingly fallen victim to the same societal ailments John Kirk fought. That nightmare inadvertently provided him with an inside look into the current workings of these same systems put in place by his great, great grandfather, and others like him, put in place over a century ago. That experience frightened him more than the horrors of homelessness itself.
Armed with the scars of this unexpected, but disturbingly relevant, knowledge Peter continues to work on “A Knight in the Slums” with renewed insight. John Kirk created solutions over 100 years ago that are still in play today. Times have changed; yet the solutions have stagnated, and proven to not be solutions, but mechanisms that perpetuate the cycle of poverty: a Hell’s Carousel funded by well-meant individuals and institutions blinded by the brand of “charity.” New systems need to be developed; new solutions need to be found.