On two separate occasions within my short life, I have been without a permanent residence. Both times I was fortunate enough to be offered temporary lodging at my friend’s houses. However, that isn’t typically the case for people who find themselves in similar situations. Crisis, a charity regarding homelessness, suggests that on any given night, tens of thousands of individuals are sleeping without a proper shelter, with upwards of 219,000 households being officially homeless (as of 2019). When written plainly like that, most people, assuming they’re decent, would say it’s a terrible problem, and one that simply must be solved. Although, real solutions are seldom offered, and the sympathy they tend to have for those effected often dies with the conversation. In fairness, I don’t have a solution at hand either, nor am I about to presume that somewhere, in this unfiltered stream of consciousness, that we will discover one. The problem with statistics, such as those appearing a few sentences ago, is that they lack a certain tangibility. It isn’t realistic to assume people can really grasp the numbers being suggested to them, our brains just don’t work that way sadly. So, what I really wanted to talk about, is the way our average person views homelessness, how we think about it, and how we act towards homeless people.
As a concept, it’s quite difficult to think about. There are levels of reassurance that it’s something to never be really considered. Having a house, a job, a good social circle, these things provide security, right? If we’re to take a second more to think on it, we find that it’s just an illusion of security. On any given day you may be evicted, fired, or find yourself isolated, all without proper reasoning. We tend not to think about these things for the sake of our mental health, no one likes to assume that terrible things will happen to them. This leaves people with seemingly one option; they must differentiate themselves from anyone who finds themselves in that situation, lest they be reminded that the roles can easily be flipped. This leads to noticeable changes in how we talk about homeless people. Vagrants, bums, tramps, beggars – the words change but the thought remains the same. Here in Brighton, the less than affectionate catch-all being “crackheads”. I’ll even catch myself saying it in the midst of some drunken stupor, mentally reprimanding myself. It doesn’t matter though, it’s all for the purpose of unconsciously “othering” the homeless. To make them seem like a different breed of person almost. One of the cruellest sins of our great nation, was convincing the average person that they are somehow better than someone sleeping on the street.
At this point, it would be easy to say this is all a tragic, unintended by-product of our society, or some similar drivel. Those people before, the ones willing to condemn the issue following a quote about statistics, are usually the same people who will be more than quick to relay an anecdote to you. Usually something along the lines of seeing someone brazenly shoplifting, or being harassed for money, perhaps they were openly threatened in the street. We’re always so quick to mention the times we met “one of the bad ones”, and why? I’m of the belief that we do it to justify that subconscious loathing that’s been built up through the generations. When we focus solely on our bad experiences, we can almost rationalise that these people probably deserve their situation. That’s not true of course, we’re just victims of successful propaganda that’s made us despise people for struggling to survive. Whenever someone tells me one of those stories, all that comes to mind is; “Desperation is a hell of a drug”.
Attitudes are not always the same as actions. When I was quite young, during a trip to some city I was told by my parents that we shouldn’t give money to the homeless, that they’d only use it on drugs or booze. Ignoring that it’s a fairly dark thing to tell a child, it’s always stuck with me as a sick and twisted assumption that permeates through most people’s upbringings. I was once criticised for offering food to a man sleeping rough, under the pretence I was in some way enabling his lifestyle. The underlying fear of the general public seems to be that offering charity to someone directly is the same as giving them drugs yourself, as if it were an inevitability. People will suggest that it’s smarter to spend money on organised charities instead, ignoring the fact that they have no such intention of donating themselves. Another alternative, often suggested, is buying someone food instead. But then again, a woman who has been sleeping in an alleyway for a week has more pressing concerns than being given a meal deal. Ultimately, it loops back to the issue of how we perceive homeless people. They’re viewed as though they have no real agency, initial assumptions of what they’re likely to do are made and are near impossible to alter. A man used to walk by my work every day, he had a keen eye for things he could salvage from underneath our benches, he would often be doing this at the same time I was sweeping, disrupting my workflow slightly. For no real reason other than horror stories told to me by co-workers, I held such resentment for this man. And then, one day, on a quiet evening, we ended up talking, and it hit me. I had no reason to dislike him. He was a lovely man in fact, and I realised that I only hated this man, whom society had failed, purely because I had been told to. Perhaps, the simplest act of kindness you can offer, is to give them a chance and talk to them.
A few years ago, I was in Reading, for a dreadful conference. It happened to fall during a month of sobriety, which made the first night, entirely based around drinking, rather uncomfortable to be a part of. So, I walked back to the hotel myself, in a town I had never been to before, with no one in a similar state of mind to talk to. And on a quiet road, I met an old Scottish man, said he’d been living on the streets and roaming the country for longer than I’d even been alive. We spent a good while talking, him telling me stories of hiding whiskey barrels on riverbeds, or other nonsensical events. The highlight of the trip, for me, was that conversation. Between 2015, and 2018, over 6,000 one way tickets to other towns, regions, or countries were purchased, by councils, for rough sleepers. I’ve always suspected that man in Reading was a recipient of one, but I neglected to ask him. Perhaps he just really liked Reading, but god knows I didn’t. My point being, our country has its solution to the “homeless problem”. It’s willing to construct hostile architecture meant to discourage people from taking shelter, and more than happy to simply move the problem to someone else. Many of these people are smart, or wise, or talented in one way or another, and they receive treatment that you would expect for vermin. Not just by their nation, but by their fellow person. What have they done to deserve it? Usually, just had a string of bad luck. Made the wrong decision once or twice perhaps. Imagine making a mistake and being condemned to a life in which you will draw contempt for daring to exist.
I know you, dear reader, don’t hate the homeless. I’m sure you can recognise that they don’t deserve any less respect than you or I. But, consider that perhaps sometimes, a bias that was crafted by others, sneaks in and convinces you that your life is worth more. If you ever happen to notice it, just ask yourself why you think that. With any luck, you’ll find there is no good answer. And on the off chance you determine you do hold more value for some reason? Then we can rest assured in knowing that we likely would not get along.