Homelessness is on the increase across the country. It’s been difficult to avoid this fact over the past year or so, especially as figures released from the National Audit Office in 2016 demonstrated a stark rise in the number of rough sleepers on the nation’s streets.
Tragically, homelessness has become a feature of modern life. For some, the sight of a rough sleeper on the morning commute is as routine as the train journey to work itself. We’re all aware of it and each of us, subconsciously or not, have our own attitudes towards it. Some are philanthropic towards the homeless, either in thought or deed, whereas others are sanctimoniously dismissive. For some it’s a case of compassion fatigue. The sight of rough sleepers is so widespread that they find it difficult to adequately express their feelings.
As with many subjects such as this, something will inevitably grab mainstream media attention and bring people’s perceptions of the issue into sharper focus. There have been a few recent events which demonstrate this in relation to homelessness. One of these incidents occurred when Whole Foods in Stoke Newington were forced to remove signs outside their store encouraging people not to give food or money to the homeless sleeping nearby. The signs, which were also inside the store, linked the giving of money or food to the homeless with “encouraging theft, aggressive behaviour and substance abuse”, before encouraging customers to donate to local charities. Naturally, the response to the signs was one of indignation and Whole Foods were forced to concede that they had been mistaken.
The whole situation was not far removed from the discourse around homelessness that has always existed: what is the best approach to take?
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There are so many contributory factors involved in driving a person to homelessness: debt, marriage breakdown, mental health issues, affordability of tenancies, welfare reform and much else.
Another perhaps even more troubling story to emerge recently was that of councils in England buying homeless people a one-way ticket out of their boroughs. The councils claim they are reconnecting homeless people to their loved ones, but with instances in which people have been offered tickets to places to which they have never been or have any connection, it’s not too difficult to see what is really going on here. Could anything represent a greater admission of failure than council-backed street cleansing of the homeless?
Charlie Carroll’s 2013 book ‘No Fixed Abode’ asserts that, for some, homelessness is simply preferable to the rigours of modern life. George Orwell, in his classic 1933 memoir ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ termed it “going to the dogs.”
It is easy to see how this could provoke the sort of sanctimony and dismissiveness mentioned earlier. There is a tendency for some to become holier-than-thou when discussing such matters to assert their own perceived superiority over those they deem to be beneath them. Surely the most lazy and boring suggestion is that homeless people should simply “get a job”, as though a job is something one can simply “get” whenever they please, irrespective of the many other contributory factors of homelessness.
Shouldn’t we be getting past these attitudes? The modern world is frightfully challenging for some people and not everybody is equipped with the necessary coping mechanisms to negotiate their way through. This should prompt compassion, not derision. Having a job does not make you better than someone who doesn’t and stigmas over causation should be challenged.
Most of us would feel justifiably confident that if we fell on hard times we would have the necessary support around us to cope. For some this is not an option and the road to the streets is much shorter for those who lack the support structures we do.
The mainstream media assault upon welfare claimants has successfully paved the way for punitive government legislation, some of which has contributed to homelessness. It is worth noting that homelessness has increased by at least 130% since 2010. This assault has also been a vehicle for widespread desensitisation toward the plight of those in need.
No single individual can alleviate this crisis, so the best thing we as individuals can do is simply show compassion. It sounds glib and superficial but there’s little else for it. Even if you have no change to give, as is so often the case, try not to take the easy option of avoiding the person, something I’ve previously been guilty of out of embarrassment. Even by simply engaging with them you have at least acknowledged their existence. It seems like nothing at all, but when someone is in that state it can mean an awful lot.
It’s important that we remember that we aren’t above these people and be thankful that our own circumstances are such that we aren’t faced with such crisis. Conversely, we should remember that, in these precarious times, many people are more at risk of homelessness than perhaps they realise.
Many rough sleepers will tell you that, rather than the cold, the lack of food and generally degrading conditions, the worst thing of all is the loss of identity, the fact that nobody asks your name.
It’s not homeless people that need a one-way ticket, rather the callous and abdicative attitudes from some local authorities towards them – a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history.
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