Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Tracy Dickinson spent four years on the streets as a teenager – and today, she helps others in Nottingham who have found themselves homeless.
There are many things people don’t understand about homelessness. But the biggest misconception, Tracy Dickinson says, is that people somehow decide to live on the streets.
“When you’re on the streets, people think you’ve done it to yourself,” she says. “That’s the worst thing, because it can be just circumstances. It could be because of a marriage or relationship break-up or a family breakdown; it could be that somebody’s lost a job and then lost their house as well; it could be that they literally just hit rock bottom and had no one to help them. But it’s hardly ever a choice.”
Dickinson, 51, is the founder of Tracy’s Street Kitchen, a grassroots not-for-profit organisation in Nottingham that provides the city’s homeless population with free, healthy meals. She launched the project in 2016 with the help of a couple of friends: once a week, they would wander around the city centre, handing out dishes of nutritious, filling food to people they saw sleeping rough.
As the project has grown over the last two years, Dickinson stopped being able to distribute the food by hand. There was simply too much demand to pace the streets of Nottingham on foot, and so today Tracy’s Street Kitchen operates from a stall in the city’s Trinity Square every Friday evening. Dickinson is supported by around 15 volunteers, who serve food to between 100 and 200 homeless men and women every week.
As well as hot meals, those who visit Tracy’s Street Kitchen are also provided with free toiletries, including sanitary products, toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant. It’s about providing people with a sense of dignity, Dickinson explains, something that’s often wiped away when you become homeless. “Some people look at you as if you’re something on the end of their shoe,” she says. “That can be quite daunting.”
Earlier this year, it was announced that the number of rough sleepers in Nottingham had dropped for the first time since 2010, an achievement the council attributes to its work with charities and outreach teams. But homelessness has long been a serious problem in the East Midlands city. In 2016, the year Dickinson set up Tracy’s Street Kitchen, the number of rough sleepers reached its highest level in almost 20 years.
If Dickinson can empathise with rough sleepers more than most, it’s the result of hard-won experience. Aged 14, she found herself living on the streets after running away from foster care, where she’d spent most of her childhood.
Her reasons for leaving ‘home’ at such a young age were shocking and valid: her foster father had subjected her to years of “physical, mental and sexual abuse”, and when she gave birth to a baby in her early teens, he suffocated the child to death.
Becoming homeless “was the only option”, Dickinson says today. “I couldn’t have stayed in the situation I’d been in for so many years. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
She stopped going to school and spent the next four years sleeping rough, interspersed with the occasional period of hunkering down on friends’ floors and sofas. But one of the consequences of having been in care for so long was that she didn’t have many close friends to call on, let alone a family. Most of us have a network of social connections that we hope would catch us if we fall; for Dickinson, that support system simply didn’t exist.
“There weren’t many people that I knew,” she says, simply. “I fell through the cracks because nobody really bothered about what happened to me.”
Those years on the streets were a frightening time. Dickinson remembers “being cold, wet [and] hungry”, following the milkman on his rounds so she could steal milk and bread off people’s doorsteps. As a teenage girl on her own, she was especially vulnerable, and often felt “very, very scared”.
But the most painful emotion was the loneliness. “Nobody speaks to you when you’re homeless,” she says. “The look of pity on people’s faces… I was so lonely, especially at night.”
When she had been homeless for four years, someone did speak to her. A man called Andrew bought her a sandwich, struck up a conversation, and they became friends. Later, he helped her get a job in an office, which allowed her to rent a bedsit. Today, she and Andrew are still close, and he has helped her run Tracy’s Street Kitchen from the beginning.
The trauma of having been homeless never really leaves you, Dickinson says, even once you have a job and a roof over your head.
“Sometimes when I’m at home, I still feel the same loneliness. You carry it around with you every day; it doesn’t go away.”
Dickinson struggles with anxiety and depression, something she associates in part with her time on the streets, and decided to set up Tracy’s Street Kitchen in 2016 after her marriage broke down. “I really wanted to focus on something that would help others, and I was walking around Nottingham and seeing more and more people [sleeping on the streets],” she says. “I just thought, this is ridiculous; something has got to be done.”
Tracy’s Street Kitchen gives her a sense of purpose, she says. She was recently made redundant - she’s a qualified teacher – and sometimes finds it difficult to get out of bed when she’s not working, but she can always motivate herself to prepare for a night in Trinity Square. “Even if I’ve had a really bad week, I look forward to Friday. I’m up really early, I’m cooking, I’m singing in the kitchen with the music on.”
Currently, Tracy’s Street Kitchen relies on fundraising by volunteers and their friends and families, as well as local donations of food and toiletries and financial donations given directly to the organisation. Dickinson hopes that it will one day receive proper funding, to allow her to dedicate more – if not all – of her working week to the project.
“When I see the guys [we serve] I have the biggest smile on my face, and the volunteers always say they feel so rewarded,” she says. “It’s so special to all of us, because these people are like my family.”
Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Courtesy of Tracy Dickinson / Getty Images