A PERSONAL tragedy lies behind every story of homelessness.

Some have endured a relationship breakdown, lost jobs and, in the worst cases, been subjected to violent, psychological and sexual abuse.

Statistics have revealed that the number of people sleeping rough in Bournemouth is increasing at almost three times the rate as the rest of the country – a rise of 292 per cent since 2010.

But these figures run the risk of dehumanising those bedding down on the town’s streets, according to volunteers who spend their days and nights trying to help rehabilitate the most vulnerable.

John Coulston first started working at a soup kitchen in 1991, a year before a street count in the borough found 47 homeless people – exactly the same number identified last November.

“If they found 47, it’s probably 147,” said Mr Coulston, who founded homelessness charity Michael House after running a night shelter in Bournemouth for a decade.

The 88-year-old said the true number is “grossly underestimated”, citing the methodology of the counts which mean only those actually lying down are included in the data.

Bournemouth council has promised “robust enforcement” to tackle the problem, with a focus on providing assistance to those with ties to the town.

Mr Coulston, once awarded a Papal medal for his charity work and who used to manage a soup kitchen at Richmond Hill’s Sacred Heart church hall, criticised this attitude.

“There is a lot of nonsense talked about homeless people – that they are aggressive, that they are horrible – but the majority are quite harmless,” he said.

“Whenever the establishment seeks to do anything about it, it is always ‘we’re clamping down, we’re going to make them do this and that’ – and of course the people who are homeless, certainly long-term homeless, are very complex characters.

“They take an awful lot of understanding, and an awful lot of working with before they can transfer into a normal type of life.

“When we had our shelter, if anyone at a soup kitchen had a vulnerable person who had nowhere to go that night, they would refer them to us.

“It didn’t matter where they came from. We didn’t say ‘how long have you been in Bournemouth? Are you a Bournemouth citizen?’ It was a case of are they vulnerable? Have they got nowhere to go? Let’s look after them – and once we’ve got them under our roof we will look at them and see if there is anything we can do to help.”

The father-of-four also disputed the council’s advice that residents should not give money to beggars.

“I have always advised there is no right or wrong. You do what you feel like doing. If you want to give somebody something then that is an act of kindness.

“A lot of very nice relationships are built up by that contact. It helps their morale. It stops them from thinking that nobody has compassion, that no one has time for them.

“If you don’t give someone something, treat them like a human being – say good afternoon or good morning - like you would to your own friends. It is a horrible feeling if you have got nothing, you have no friends and you are on the street.”

Mr Coulston's concerns about treating homeless people with respect are mirrored by Nick Auger, deputy housing manager at the Westover Road branch of the YMCA, who told the Daily Echo he has witnessed some shocking cases.

“Some of the horror stories, the worst you can imagine, do come through our doors. We have had people trafficked from other countries to work as sex slaves, people who have been under police protection from paedophile rings,” said Mr Auger.

He claimed the issue of homelessness has polarised society, and that some still need help understanding what assistance is available and why those affected have found themselves in such despairing situations.

“Often you will be approached in town by people saying ‘I’m just looking for a couple of quid to get into the night shelter’. There is no night shelter. It doesn’t work like that anymore. All the avenues to get into supported accommodation are there, either through the Town Hall or directly to us, and there is no need to be doing that,” said Mr Auger.

“Drugs and mental health are the most prevalent causes, and when they go together it makes it so much more complicated. Drug-use can lead to mental health problems just as mental health problems can lead to drug-use."

But the most prominent and common problem Mr Auger said he witnesses, is crippling low self-esteem

"The things that have been said to them and done to them, they almost dehumanise themselves in their own eyes, they forget that they are worth something.

“We do motivation courses, self-actualisation, getting them to realise ‘I’m worth something, I’m worth fighting for’.

“We want to try and get them to lift their heads and say, ‘I’m not going to give up, I have the qualities and worth of any other human to make a good crack at life'.”

Residents are urged to report any rough sleepers so that they can receive help as soon as possible. This can be done by calling 0300 500 0914 or visiting www.streetlink.org.uk.