Meet the homeless woman who has spent two years living in a tent near Guildford

November 21, 2018

Natalie Cannell lives in a tent hidden among some trees just outside Guildford.

She has been there for two years.

In that time, the 41-year-old has battled with freezing temperatures, addiction and ill health – including a bout of swine flu that came close to killing her.

“The street life,” she says, “is not kind to you.”

It was not always like this for Natalie, who grew up in the area and attended a private girls’ school before her life began to go downhill.

Natalie Cannell in her tent near Guildford. The makeshift stove next to her is her main source of heat, but resulted in her suffering smoke inhalation in October 2018.
(Image: Darren Pepe/Surrey Advertiser)

“I rebelled, basically, until I was put into care,” she says, sitting in her makeshift shelter next to a fireplace fashioned from a bin and a concrete pipe.

She ended up in prison for burglary, and then assaulting a guard, and while in jail became addicted to heroin.

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Homelessness in Surrey

She said: “I was so stressed out in prison, I was so scared.

“I didn’t know about crack and heroin then, but they were passing this needle round. You wouldn’t believe how many drugs there were inside.”

After leaving prison, she managed to hold down a job and a flat for around 12 years before things spiralled out of control again, leaving her back on the streets.

“We slept in a car for a year,” she said, “and sofa-surfed for a bit.”

One of the problems she encountered is the lack of provision for homeless women in Guildford. Mulberry House in Epsom Road offers 15 rooms for women, but only those aged between 18 and 35, while the Number Five Night Shelter in York Road has just two spaces for women.

With no council accommodation and no spaces in homeless shelters for her, she and her partner have taken to the woods to find shelter and, they hope, some security.

“It’s not safe in Guildford, in any shape or form,” she said, “The services are just not good enough.”

Natalie and her bike near her tent
(Image: Darren Pepe/Surrey Advertiser)

In the woods, she has a two-man tent surrounded by tarpaulin, which provides some extra space for the fire, two chairs and a small table.

She said: “We’ve tried to make it homely, it’s all we’ve got in the world. All I own is here.

“I like the seclusion, I like the quietness. No-one comes here, no-one knows about it.”

But Natalie still worries that someone may discover her tent and trash it, and has asked for its exact location to remain a secret.

Even if it remains a secret from the outside world, there are still serious safety risks.

“My health is poor,” Natalie said, “It gets so damp in these conditions.

“You have to sleep in your clothes. You get very uncomfortable, you’re tossing and turning but you do get used to it in the end.

“Trying to keep warm is hard. It’s so cold out here at night and in the morning. All night long we will have a fire going.”

It was the fire that led to her last hospital admission. At the end of October 2018 she was taken to the Royal Surrey County Hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation – a result of keeping the fire lit as temperatures approached freezing.

Despite these hardships, Natalie still has hopes for the future.

“All these years I’ve been homeless, it’s so disheartening. We wanted kids, but this homelessness has taken it away from us.

“I’m hoping to settle down,” she said, “Get married, make a home.”

However, with some reports suggesting homeless could rise in the near future, more people could be making their home in the woods of England’s richest county.

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