Cuckoo (ing?) – coming to a town near you
Mark Fisher explores the phenomenon of ‘Cuckooing’ of vulnerable people and its effect on homelessness. Transient drug dealers from the major cities are now using towns to run mercurial drug trading routes known as ‘county lines’. They target vulnerable social tenants until the police carry out a raid or they are forced back on the streets/evicted through fear. It forms part of the backdrop of socially deprived areas that attract criminality such as drug dealing and trafficking.
Cuckoo. A brood parasite. But it sounds innocuous. Bucolic. And the perfect premise for a BBC3 sitcom. ‘Rachel arrives home from her year abroad with a new boyfriend, much to the dismay of her parents’. But this is cuckoo-lite. In the urban underbelly of towns across the UK, a more fitting strapline might be ‘Fifteen year old Rachel arrives home with a drug-dealing boyfriend, much to the dismay of her mother who lets him stay until a gun is waved in her face in order to intimidate her into having sex’. Rachel doesn’t do drugs. Or drink. Or been in trouble with the police. She’s what the drug network call a ‘clean skin’. And she’s brought home a cuckoo.
Daniel, on the other hand, is far from being a clean skin. He’s been using Class A drugs for years. I know where to find him because it’s where all the homeless people drift towards eventually. In the alleyways around McDonald’s at the top of town. My town. Your town. Any town. It’s December and bitterly cold. The brass monkeys have long since found shelter elsewhere. There are a number of people I recognise gathered around a cluster of blankets and bedding. Drinkers, mainly. Daniel is not among them and I carry on along the street, checking the multiple alleyways between the shop fronts. My job is to find out why Daniel is on the street again and get him back in his property. He’s not homeless. At least, not technically. He has a ground-floor flat with a housing association. I’d last seen him three weeks ago in a multi-agency meeting. Lost. Disengaged. Fearful. Surrounded by a group of professionals who needed to know what the story is. Why had he left the property? What did he know about the drug raid? Did he understand that he may be intentionally homeless?
I find him buried in a sleeping bag in a narrow, covered alleyway off the main street. At least I think it’s probably him because there’s some dog treats and a cup of hot soup left by the hairdresser’s opposite where he’s camped. I squat down to say hello. Poverty Safari is now rattling around inside my brain from the night before.
Daniel is hyper-vigilant. I know that now. I didn’t the last time we met. He raises his head slightly to acknowledge me. I ask where his dog is and he opens the sleeping bag to reveal a small, chunky tan and white dog that is fast asleep. I tell him that I need to know what’s been happening at his property. Repossession is edging closer. I need evidence of harassment. Of cuckooing by drug dealers. That he is not culpable. But he won’t tell me anything. He’s not a grass. He says they took his dog and cut him. He’d already left the property when the police raided. He was doing well until the dealers turned up. He was off the gear and working. He had the beginnings of a new life and he desperately wanted that back again. He doesn’t know where the keys are and won’t go back – with or without me. I tell him that I’m dealing with many cases like his. I tell him that I need to get into the property with his permission.
The property is unremarkable. It’s not in a block but part of a one-up, one-down row of flats that sit opposite a row of three-bed houses separated by a wide strip of neatly mown grass. Some properties belong to housing associations and others are privately owned. The gardens are well kept and tidy. A mixture of older people and families. The front door bears the tell-tale circular scars of a police ram – the modern-daymarker for an infected property. As the carpenter drills out the lock, a neighbour approaches. She asks if the druggies have finally been evicted. I tell her it’s not as simple as that. She goes away disappointed. Once inside, the activity is obvious. A multitude of dismembered cycle parts are strewn throughout the property. Wheels. Frames. Bits. Everything is filthy except the carpets and curtains. Because there aren’t any. There are discarded syringes in the sink amongst the food-encrusted plates. The kitchen window frame has been split open. There is a makeshift sleeping area behind the settee. Where the flat once contained the seed of a new life, it was now full of the accumulated detritus of cuckooing. But not the sit-com kind.
The text-a-drug business is developing an alarminglycorporate feel. The various gangs are expanding their supply routes into the countryside through a readily available pool of teenagers willing to make hundreds of pounds a week running the drugs from the cities. And what better way to establish trading outposts than through the myriad of vulnerable, easily intimidated people that are housed in our respective towns?Vulnerable people whose addresses now appear on a drug-dealer’s list of places from which to bag-up and distribute.
Daniel is now caught up in that trade. We both are. One of us will be angry and frustrated while the other will lose their home along with the prospect of a new beginning. And worse, they will lose hope. Daniel, and victims like him, are being squeezed back onto the streets because people like me demand evidence that he can’t give. The days of a casual move elsewhere are long gone. As with cases of domestic violence, there are now expected measures that can be put in place by the police and local authorities. Alarms. Protocols. Injunctions. Sleeping on the street in freezing weather because you’re too scared to go home does not constitute evidence. Not in my world. Those who are also street-homeless around him may sympathise – but no quarter will be given if hebreaks the cardinal rule of the streets. He mustn’t grass. I know this. Daniel knows this. The cuckoo knows this. His vulnerability is now playing heavily against him.
I have sat in numerous multi-agency meetings as vulnerable victims struggle to overcome a conundrum that they are forced to confront on a daily basis. Cuckooing is on the rise like a social cancer and drawing in precious resources. The police are working really hard to target these criminals and provide as much protection as they can to the victims – but they need more help. The cuckoo will target vulnerable people living in rented property and some landlords need to work much closer with the police to share intelligence as well as action. Cuckoos thrive particularly well in communities that are full of fly-tipping and tardy buildings. This is where the local authority should be using the law against landlords whose properties spoil the general amenity. If not, it will only act as a welcome banner to the cuckoo. Your community will now be at risk if they don’t act.
At the time of writing, the outcome for Daniel is entirely unpredictable. But Daniel is not a statistic. He’s one of a thousand unique stories huddled under a common umbrella. Homelessness may follow a common thread but it rarely follows a common narrative.