Homelessness bothers me.

This article was meant to be a brief comment on something being looked at a great deal right now, it grew and grew into a longer piece. It does fit with the theme of my next book so it may make it into that in some other form.

It’s Boxing Day, the day after Christmas which is most likely the most indulgent day of the year for everyone in the western world, and many others. It’s much more pervasive now as a secular holiday where the religious aspects have nothing to do with the traditions anymore. I’m not now and never have been Christian but my family have always celebrated Christmas, as a child I probably didn’t even realise it was based on any religion.

Where I grew up in the Southern Hemisphere Christmas fell in the middle of summer, which meant it was very hot, yet we still used the same snowy imagery, Santa is his big red winter coat, fake snow on pine trees even though we were barbequing and drinking ice cold beer.

My idea of Christmas has naturally been affected by this, but the overall message that was presented about the holiday was to spend time with loved ones, family and or friends. And also, to give, to be generous. Despite the generosity aspect, principal even Christmas equates to pure greed and gluttony for many. Personally I’m not interested in objects so much but I definitely eat and drink more than I need.

Now living in London, Christmas is in winter and I get a few days off work to sit at home and eat and drink. It’s not really about anything for me other than that, I am being indulgent like most other people. I am also quite aware of how privileged I am to be able to do that.

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave the last month you will have seen a great deal on the news about homelessness, this is something that always comes up at this time of year for several reasons.

  1. Charities appeal to people wanting to give back, to come help in a soup kitchen or offer blankets and coats.
  2. To make people be aware that sleeping rough in the middle of British winter is brutal, and to be kind to those who are.
  3. Media making themselves feel good about highlighting an issue (cynical sounding, but true of some)

 

Providing awareness is of course important, sign posting people to where help can be found or even making someone think slightly different about someone less fortunate is only good.

This year however there’s another angle, politics. This is due to some rather alarming statistics that in the last few years (since the recession and the subsequent austerity plans) homelessness has more than doubled According to Shelter 1 in 200 people is classed as homeless, that’s around 300000 people in the UK [1]. Various political parties are using this in their end of year messages. It is a political issue because economics has a direct effect on social matters. In Oct 2017 the Homelessness Reduction Act[2] was passed, we now even have a law addressing the distribution of funds and support to solve homelessness. I do find it slightly ludicrous to put resources into writing about what to do about the problem, but if a piece of legislation pushes positive change and even maintains it then that must be good. It is of course ironic that this act was passed under a government that pretty much caused the problem, we’ll address that issue later.

Before looking at causes we do need to know what exactly homelessness is? The cliché is the rough sleeper, usually an older man, grimy clothes, scraggly beard begging for cigarettes and spare change for booze, but it’s not just rough sleeping. It also includes people who are in temporary accommodation, hostels and Bed and Breakfasts, people accessing shelters, people sleeping in their cars and indeed the rough sleepers.

Who are these people? There are a number of people made homeless due to substance abuse issues, some due to mental health problems. Those guys I described above exist, but they are only a fraction of the homeless population in the UK they are just the ones we see regularly. Every high street or train station has a local beggar or two, sometimes they are so regular you even know which spot they will sit in at what time of day, others come and go without much notice.  We need to be clear on that fact that homelessness doesn’t discriminate, that we now have a population of homeless people who could be anyone at all and most of them are not visible to the rest of us.

Homelessness bothers me, and it should bother you. And not because of the families with young children evicted from their homes because of low wages and high rents. Not because of the refugee who has escaped death to find themselves on the streets and not because of the grizzled alcoholic who couldn’t pay his bills but simply, because it exists. It bothers me that we have homelessness at all.

“He chooses to be homeless, it’s not my responsibility to help him”

Yes, they exist but let’s face it, that phrase is an excuse to not give money, or help or cigarettes or to talk. It’s incredibly naive to think that so many thousand people actually want to be homeless junkies on the street. If you’ve ever had that thought, or said a statement like that you will know that you don’t actually believe it. This is a way of you saying you don’t want to deal with it, but instead of feeble excuses you should say “I don’t want to deal with it”

There is a small number of people who really do choose to opt out of society, it’s quite likely they do fall into the category of homeless people with mental health problems. There are homeless people who will even say they choose this, and I have met some who say that and some mean it, but it’s a classic human response to deal with your situation being less than what you expect.

You have made mistakes, you have found your mistakes have led you to a bad situation. Maybe you struggle to work your way out of that situation but “luck”[3] is not on your side, eventually you stop working on it, you resign yourself to your situation. At this point, in an attempt to save face you tell others you have chosen this way of life, you choose to be homeless, you just love crack so much you don’t want to quit. You have taken back control of your situation by claiming you wanted it all along.

I suspect most people reading this have done that to some extent with some situation in your life, mine is smoking. I genuinely enjoy it, but even though I know I should and need to quit I always tell people I choose to continue. I have quit to an extent, but after a couple of beers I don’t hesitate to accept one off a friend.

Those few people who do genuinely want to be homeless, unattached to systems and rules are not who I want to focus on. In fact, I don’t want to focus on homeless people at all. I want to focus on the rest of us.

I’ll start with myself. Other than a few occasions I have not given money to beggars. I am of the view that giving an individual a few coins aren’t going to help them in the long run. This partially came from the fact that I grew up with very little, we weren’t poor, but we certainly didn’t have money. I felt that what little I had as a young adult working low paid jobs was barely enough to get by at times (even in late 90’s/early 2000’s NZ where life was easier) I never had left over cash before pay day. But I earned my money and I deserved to use it as I see fit. I don’t quite see things the same way now, but I do also respect that opinion.

The second element that gave me that viewpoint is as I got older and working for social care charities I came to the belief that organisational support was more beneficial than individual giving. Donating your money to a good charity meant people could get real help. There is a bigger debate about what makes a good charity and how you know they help. For most of my career working for charities I also remained firmly in the low-income bracket, meaning I still didn’t have spare cash.

My life is different now, I make good money, I am very comfortable. I can in fact afford to save and give some money away. My career has been about helping others, and I also spend money and time organising community music events outside of work, for which I do not get paid. I feel like I do a lot to help, but I also feel I could do more.

As you’re reading this you can clearly see that homelessness is an issue I would like to do something about. Yet, I still won’t give money to beggars, which is something to explore.

“I don’t want to fund their crack habit”

“What if that’s the only thing that makes them get through each day”

“It’s not my fault they are there”

“Maybe they are buying food?”

“Go to a foodbank”

“Once you give them money, it’s theirs, you can’t decide how they spend it”

“What if my money buys the overdose that kills them?”

“what if they starve and you were the last person they asked for cash?”

Some people feel that they should decide what a beneficiary of welfare should spend their money on, that someone getting jobseekers benefits shouldn’t be able to buy lottery tickets or Super Lager[4], but once the money is theirs it’s theirs, to make those distinctions we could become too controlling, imagine someone deciding how you spend your money, it would be dehumanising and again, we are all allowed to make unwise choices. If we start deciding that we quickly move away from offering welfare at all, which doesn’t seem too far from the truth right now. I would prefer people use their money unwisely to attain a little pleasure than we have no welfare system to support those in need.

“What if’s” are pointless, let’s not what if each other to death.  What if a meteorite hits the planet? We’re all fucked.

I believe we should all help each other. And you giving a small amount of cash might give someone that moment of happiness that will keep them going. I’ve learned that moments of kindness can do wonders for a person, sometimes a smile or acknowledgment can make a person feel better. Don’t underestimate the power of a few spare coins you don’t need. I have wasted money, it’s my right to do so, I can make unwise choices but I do think that maybe someone could have benefitted from it. No one expects you to give up your comfort, but you can give a little. This isn’t me asking you to give, just pointing out many of you can. I have certainly had experiences where I’m not sure if I should help someone, and then move on without doing so. Later I regret it, thinking that I should have tried, at worst the person doesn’t want or need your help.

The current situation is very complex, the homelessness epidemic in the UK is unnecessary. The rise is due to public policy, the austerity plans which benefit the rich and mean social housing is depleted (or at least not growing at the rate it should) It’s due to the cost of living going up and wages are not. It’s due to banks being bailed out of selfish practice and individuals and families are not, it’s due Conservative party policy victimising the sick and disabled and punishing them for not being able.

Do I need to go on? If you live in the UK and are unaware of these facts, you are blind. But where does this leave us? In my social circles most people vote labour or green, why does evil win (I mean evil) Why does a few people making money mean others suffer? Keep up the fight, keep voting and choosing the right things. This doesn’t however, solve the problem right now. Some councils are building new homes, but who gets them and is there enough?

The recent atrocity of Grenfell Tower has highlighted the difficulty for the individuals in getting new homes. As I am very aware of the bureaucracy of social services, I am aware of the amount of work it can take to get someone into social housing, it’s not as simple as here is a flat, move in[5]. Besides the tragedy, what that disaster caused is a significant amount of people being made homeless, will they remain that way?

What we have is institutions (Governments) who use and create systems (capitalism/austerity policy) which creates hardship (homelessness/poverty) which then requires organisations (charities) to help those in hardship, these charities often require funding support from the institutions that caused the hardship or from the public (those with little money) It’s absurd. In a Utopia we wouldn’t have this, we would look after the sick and disabled and I’d be out of a job, but it wouldn’t matter as I wouldn’t need one. Maybe not, but you get the idea. It’s moebius strip of eternal bureaucracy which gives the façade of a functioning society.

A functioning society to me is one where we work together as people, one without needless separatism.

This is why homelessness bothers me, it is greed that causes it. How can someone have 100, 200, 300 million, or billions in the bank while a single mother of two is homeless and using foodbanks, I couldn’t do it. But unfortunately, the richest are the richest because they don’t share. You might even ask the question of why should I help when there are people and organisations who could solve the problem overnight? You don’t have to, not at all. You can keep all of your money and all of your time and energy to yourself. You might also say I want to use my time and money to help, but I choose hedgehogs or trees, or help people in countries with no clean water, that’s also fine, you can do what you like.

In your own achievements you may work incredibly hard, but someone along the line will help you. Someone will see your potential and offer a job, or buy your product or give you an award. That person on the streets needs someone else to give them a boost, a little help to get by, we gain value by showing care to others.

Right now, homelessness seems like the “cause of the week” with many publications covering it, but I really don’t want to jump on that or any other bandwagon. I am still seriously considering what part I can play in this. I don’t want to offer my couch to someone for the night, even though I think that’s a wonderful thing to do, I want the comfort of my home as it is which is honest, I am happy to part with some of my money but I need to know Its being used well, I will vote for the party and representatives that I believe will help the society as a whole (not just for homeless people) I don’t think signing online petitions do much, I don’t think protesting will help much. I do believe in the little gestures but we still need a bigger solution. If you have lived in any city, you have been on the receiving end of a person begging for money who reels off a well-practiced and insincere monologue about why you should help them, and either you feel you’ve been fooled when you give them money or you walk away thinking it’s a scam. I will walk away from those with a polite, I have no cash. I’m as jaded as any city dweller by these almost daily encounters but a recent experience struck me differently.

Walking to my kickboxing class one cold winter evening I pass a chicken shop as I always do, and a man who was I guess around 60 was standing outside, he said something very simple “Do you have any spare change so I can eat” I was sort of in a zone as I am when I walk so I shook my head and carried on. It’s that difficult thing to pinpoint, but he was being honest, he needed food and I walked on. How do I know? It was in his eyes and his expression stuck with me. And pondering this man later is what lead me to think about homelessness overall and write this. I could of fed him, with a few spare coins (can’t remember if I had any) and again you go to the argument that you can’t help everyone, what if you gave every beggar £2, you’d be poor.

If it’s the contrived monologue or the genuine appeal we need to remember these are both people, normal people who have found themselves where they are for a huge variation of reasons. The beggar is a person begging, the words we choose to describe people make a difference. By labelling and pigeonholing it’s easy to dehumanise people.

Many people seem to fear homeless people, as though they are contagious. Do you fear what you see and how it will make you feel? Do you fear having to deny their request? If you were an alien who landed on earth and watched  TV or looked at Instagram and other social media to see what humans do, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking a person’s worth is based on what they have and how many photos of them dressed with gold jewellery they have. This aspiration to have more than you need drives the negative views of those without. If we are OK with being comfortable then wealth could be spread amongst everyone.

This is not a UK only problem, but this is where I live and what I see, it’s the country where my career in social care has meant I have seen first-hand the results of austerity even if I haven’t suffered myself. I’ve seen people have their benefits cut, losing their homes losing their services and the incredibly negative effect it has on people. There are many people, organisations and charities that are actively helping this homelessness problem but they are all fighting an uphill struggle, the population they are helping is continuing to grow.

Helping homeless people isn’t new, many have been doing so for a long time. I know that sometimes there feels like there’s so many problems in the world you can’t possibly be involved in all of them which is true. We all need to pick our battles and helping people isn’t about giving up your precious “Me time”. Some changes that have occurred have been some countries changing laws around food waste, now leftover but perfectly edible food from supermarkets in France must be given away to foodbanks etc.

People have set up “pay what you can” restaurants. Some cafes have a scheme where you buy a coffee and you can donate money for a homeless person to get a free coffee, you might not even see them. There are free community cooking events where hungry people can eat freshly made food by volunteers and the response of the public to Grenfell showed huge generosity in time and money by many.

Every time a local council puts in spikes in doorways to stop a rough sleeper someone does something good. It is true that many homeless people don’t help themselves and don’t cooperate with others to make change but most people are happy to receive help even if they would prefer not to need help at all.

If you have any empathy, you can imagine what it might do to you to be homeless, how would that feel? Just remember when you are being wasteful that someone could benefit from what you are throwing away, think about time that you can offer. We clearly need some changes in government and local authorities to help resolve this problem, but it is public anger that will help drive this, direct your outrage, and channel your disdain.

 

[1].Shelter is a national charity for Homeless people.

[2] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2017/13/contents/enacted

[3] I don’t believe in luck, but it is a fact that some people seem to have a lot more hardship than others with no real reason other than the laws of chance, believe what you will about that.

[4] Notoriously strong and cheap beer, typical choice of street drinkers and poor people.

[5] I won’t comment on the failures behind the Grenfell issues after the fire, people are suffering and money is tied up in bureaucratic blundering.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s