They’ve become an homogenised, almost sub-human, element of our society. A ubiquitous sight in most major cities and yet we fail to see them. If they do register in our consciousness we ignore them. Mostly. Some of us complain. Some drop a few coins without making eye contact. Yes, I’m talking people who ‘live’ on our streets. The homeless. How did we come to be a society that could ignore ‘Homeless and hungry. Please help’, walking by without a thought or care?
Homeless people need better press. Someone needs to do a marketing job so that we take some notice. They’re not cute enough or desperate enough. I am willing to believe that familiarity breeds contempt, that a lot of us do care, but feel helpless: what can one person do to make a difference? I am willing to be generous about my fellow humans because I don’t have the answers, though neither do I feel I can ignore a fellow human being in need. So, I want to remind you, to remind me, that this is what the people you see – and don’t see – on the street are: fellow human beings with history, with stories, with names.
I was chatting to Tommy the other day in Edinburgh (let’s call him that, he was too ashamed to tell me his name). He doesn’t drink or smoke or take drugs. He was made homeless by the council when his sister – whose home he was living in after job loss and marriage break down – died of cancer last November. He wasn’t the tenant so he was unable to live there, even though he had no other family, no home, no job. He was made homeless and has lived on the streets since. He can’t claim benefits as he is ‘of no fixed abode’. He goes from day to day with little hope of a better life, trying to survive because he wants to see his kids.
Tommy’s dad was in the army and Tommy was dragged about the place. His education was disrupted and his literacy skills are poor. (This is surprisingly common in military families. I taught literacy skills back in the 90’s). It was hard for Tommy to get a decent job. After one tour his dad didn’t come home, so his mum had to leave the army accommodation and take him and his sister to a refuge. Eventually they were re-housed by the council. Tommy left school as soon as he could and took a job to help the family pay the bills. He was 15. The job was low paid and without benefits or security.
Tommy did the best he could with the resources he had. His mum died in her 40’s and Tommy and his sister made their own lives with their own families. In 2014 Tommy was made redundant and not long after his relationship broke down. He found himself on the street with nothing. His sister, now a widow, took him in, but after she died he was homeless yet again.
Tommy doesn’t complain about being homeless or about the unfairness of his life. He complained about it being a ‘bit nippy’. He was upset that he wouldn’t get to see his kids this week as he didn’t have the bus fare. He hates it when he does see his kids because he’s ashamed of himself.
I asked Tommy about homeless shelters and he told me that he stayed in one over Christmas and New Year, but it shut in January. He told me his stuff got stolen. I don’t think he was making up his story. There are thousands of people like Tommy with similar stories to tell.
A contemporary of my stepson came home one day to find his belongings on the front lawn and the lock changed on the door courtesy of his step-father. It was his 18th birthday present. In young people’s homeless hostels up and down the country there are similar stories. Young people are often forced to leave home when a parent takes a new partner or re-marries and the new partner makes it clear the young person, the son or daughter, is not wanted, or worse. When young people leave the care system the state no longer has a responsibility for them and some of them become homeless. They don’t have families, or if they do they’re not fit to look after them, and they drop through the cracks and out of the system. 140,000 young people run away each year and a percentage of these end up homeless in cities up and down the UK. They’re not the only ones: ex-military personnel, people with mental illness, people whose relationships fall apart, people who lose their jobs. The spiral to the gutter can happen surprisingly rapidly. And without an address you are nobody. You can’t claim any state help, you can’t see a GP.
There are alcoholics and drug users on our streets, although which comes first may be a moot point, but no one choses to sit on a busy street on a bit of cardboard and beg. People sit with their signs and their hats – and yes, sometimes their dogs – because they have no other choices left. Any number of circumstances can mean that you slip through the net. When I left my husband, had I not had friends and family who could put me up, I would have been homeless. It’s scary how easily it can happen in a so called civilised society.
I didn’t give Tommy any money that day. I gave him some food and a hot drink and a few minutes of my time. He was grateful, more than anything, that someone had stopped to talk to him. You may tell me it doesn’t make any difference. He’s still on the street today and probably will be tomorrow. And you’re right of course, but for 10 minutes he felt human again; connected, like someone gave a damn. I didn’t ignore him, and walk by. I stopped and acknowledged that he existed and listened to his story.
I’m sure there are plenty of us who care, who feel impotent in the face of such seeming hopelessness. If enough people care enough to feel indignant about this, for the right reasons, then surely something could happen to change things, to give people a helping hand, a foot on the ladder back into society.
There are charities that do things in some places. There was a recent TV programme which raised awareness of the plight of ex-services personnel, so maybe there will be a ground swell of public goodwill which will turn this tragedy of wasted lives around.
If you don’t feel you can do anything, if you can’t bring yourself to give money, perhaps you can spare a few minutes of your time to have a conversation with a homeless person, share your common humanity and give someone some hope, make them feel that they are worth your time and are not dross, not nothing, if only for a moment.
If enough people chose to do something small, it can amount to something big.
Let’s End Homeslessness Together https://www.homeless.org.uk/facts-figures