I saw the most ridiculous article posted on someone’s Facebook page recently, and it made me absolutely seethe with anger. For that reason I have so far avoided writing about it, because you won’t like me when I’m angry. But then someone else I know tweeted an ignorant and obnoxious comment and I couldn’t hold back any more. It’s something I have a little bit of personal experience with, but to be fair I’m no expert so please, if you think I’m wrong fine, let’s agree to disagree, but I don’t want to hear it. What I want to do is just to make you think about…people. People, exactly like you and me, except that for whatever reason they have nowhere to live. I want to talk about the issue of homelessness.
I grew up in a small town (well on a small island to be precise), in a relatively nice part of the UK, where there weren’t a lot of people sleeping rough or begging on the streets. The first time I encountered a Big Issue seller was when I moved away to University. At first I didn’t even know that these people were homeless, not until I actually read the magazine. Sounds stupid I know, but it had never crossed my mind before, like it’s probably never crossed your mind what you would do in case of an earthquake unless you live on a fault line. I’d never really thought about what led people to a life on the streets, or what it must be like. I began to notice more and more, the regulars who would sleep on the Cathedral Green; the guy with a long beard and jaunty hat, the burly looking guy who had a big brown dog, the girl who looked a bit like me, except much thinner (I had quite a bit of puppy fat), with straggly unwashed hair. I would see them day in day out, and although I wanted to give them money or food or something, I was just a student at the time and could barely afford to look after myself.
It made me feel sad, confused and angry all at once. I wondered how these people had come to be in this position, and more importantly why nobody seemed to care or appeared to be doing anything about it? It seemed so alien to me, because I was fortunate enough to know that no matter what happens in my life there are people who love me and would always be there for me. I wondered if their families knew where they were; I couldn’t imagine that they did but just didn’t care. It was clear that most were intoxicated a lot of the time, and I thought about how frightening and lonely it must be, and that trying to block it out was probably the only way to get through the day.
One day, when I had been stopped for the third time on my way down the high street and asked for any spare change, I apologised profusely and said I was a student and that I had already bought the Big Issue that week, I felt that there must be something I could do that didn’t involve money. Through my University volunteer scheme, I started helping out at a local shelter, just serving breakfast and talking to people. It really was one of the best but most difficult things I have ever done. At first I was a bit scared, and there were good reasons to be. Some of the regulars not only had problems with addiction but many had mental health issues and could be quite aggressive, especially in arguments with each other but sometimes with the staff as well. I was just 18 and had absolutely no idea what to do, except carry on making the tea.
After a while I got a little bit braver, and started to step out from behind the counter and actually sit and chat with some of the people who I saw each week. It wasn’t easy at first; what does an 18 year old girl with no idea about life talk about to a middle aged man who used to build bombs for a living?! Well actually, Politics, which is what I was studying. This guy was fascinating, he had degrees in physics and chemistry, had seen and done a lot of terrifying things but when he eventually left the military, the nature of his work meant that he had been unable to get another job. He was single, no family to speak of, and without the structure and routine of military life he had started drinking the day away. This sort of thing didn’t happen overnight but I could see how, over time, he had just lost his way. We would talk at length about New Labour policies, the Iraq War, The NHS, and the things he said made a lot more sense than some of the things I was hearing in my Uni classes.
I met another guy who was about the same age as me, who was very sweet, he always seemed very nervous and shy so I didn’t ever press him to talk. One day he asked me to help him read a letter; it was from the court. He had to face charges of assault, for attacking his father. I knew it was none of my business, but I asked if he was ok to go on his own. He said that one of the staff there would go with him, they knew him quite well. I asked my colleague about him later on, she explained that his father was a drug dealer who had thrown him out of the house when he was just 15. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then regularly took his son’s benefit money. No wonder the kid felt safer on the street.
After almost year, I had to leave. One of the rules was that we couldn’t personally befriend any of the people we saw at the shelter, and I had become quite close to a young mother there who was very vulnerable. She had become pregnant whilst still at school and had been kicked out by her mum, who already had several younger children in the house. I just felt so protective of her, when I saw her, I would do things like buy her a sandwich, and I gave her one of my jackets which I didn’t really need. But this was against the rules, and I understood why. I just wasn’t ever good at sticking to rules. So I left, which was painful, but I didn’t have the time to give either at that point, my second year of studying was a lot more intense and I also had a part time job which took up my free time.
But I have always continued supporting organisations like Shelter, because I learned during my time as a volunteer that homelessness is such a complex and intractable issue. There are so many reasons why people end up in this situation; a lot of times it is due to abuse and neglect, which then leads to mental health problems and addiction, which in turn can lead to crime and creates a vicious circle. There are a lot of ex military men who are homeless. A lot of homeless people have literacy problems, and that makes everything in life so much more difficult than it needs to be. But it’s not an appealing issue for politicians or celebrities to engage with; it’s not glamorous, there’s a lot of prejudice amongst the public, it’s not a problem that any state or government knows how to solve because there are just no easy answers. Which is why it upsets me so much to hear people I know, intelligent, supposedly educated people, spouting nonsense like homeless people should be ‘locked up and their children put into care’. Because it’s a crime to be poor, right? Out of sight out of mind? Better yet, why not just build some camps where we can send anyone we don’t like… Or instead, how about not spreading around sick articles on the internet which are complete tosh about ‘beggars who earn ten grand a week’, how about not suggesting that we should criminalise the vulnerable, and how about doing something, whatever you can, to help some of these people?