Myths about rough sleeping

One of the things that we are now seeing that we didn’t see (at least in this country) a few years ago are homeless people in and around our high streets, some of who do beg for money. During my monthly Street Pastor outings between 10pm and 3am on a Friday or Saturday evening, we could typically come across ten or so rough sleepers, some begging for money and some not. Many then go off somewhere else to sleep but more often than not the places these folks end up in are places where few of us would want to sleep.

Seeing an article in our local newspaper last week when claims were made like: such people deliberately make themselves homeless, they can get the help they need if they go to the right places and those who are on the streets do so to beg in order to feed an alcohol or drug habit, all got me thinking. Since that article, reports have got back to me, from more than one source, that some of these folk have suffered abuse from some members of the passing public, taunting them with these claims. Abuse is nothing new of course and to our society’s shame many rough sleepers have been victims of assault.

When a friend of mine, having shared with me his sense of righteous indignation given (he felt) these claims were outrageously untrue and gave a wrong picture, and wanting to state what the true position was, the counsel I gave to him was to go and research the facts, keep personalities out of it and keep his powder dry until the time was right to fire his gun with maximum effect. While I cannot speak for all the homeless people in Southend, I am more qualified than most to have a go at stating what I understand the true position is. Besides being a Street Pastor, I chair Southend Homeless Action Network and manage one of the church winter night shelters and have got to know a number of our rough sleeper friends over the years – many, incidentally, are just as decent as most and with more interesting takes on life than most. As with any group in the community, there is the good and the bad; and, regarding rough sleepers, I have seen many undertake many acts of kindness.

Myth 1: No one needs to be homeless

While maintaining good relationships with family, holding a steady job, living a sensible lifestyle and keeping out of debt are all laudable goals, the reality is that few of us do all these things all of the time and any one of these things could be the trigger to our finding ourselves homeless, out on the streets, with many of the props we take for granted taken away from us, and we find ourselves alone in what may seem a hostile environment. Besides which, few of us can maintain full control if we become unwell (physical or mental) or suffer bereavement or having been the victim of abuse, sometimes going back to childhood, for such is the lottery which is life. Just ask the two newly homeless men I spoke to this morning at the night shelter I manage! A short while back, both were settled in their own homes but now they find themselves homeless because their marriages had broken down. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a phrase that springs to mind that could apply to any one of us!

By way of an update: the following week at my night shelter, we entertained a guest, also newly homeless, who had been referred to us by the Street Pastors who had come across him. He found himself unable to access benefits for what seemed fairly weak reasons (a fairly common situation these days and is one of the often not intended consequences of welfare reform and austerity measures). The net result was he had no money to pay rent and therefore found himself on the streets. I suppose I could have gone through all thirty of the rough sleepers who presented themselves and while it is true some, maybe most, were instruments of their own not having a place to live downfall, many are not (one day I will try to collate some of the stories). I have not even begun to address the sizable number, conservatively estimated at a quarter of million in the UK, who are immigrants with “no recourse to public funds” (they cannot work or claim benefits), many of who have good reason for not returning to their country of origin and in one way or another have been let down by the system. All this may be the basis of a future blog entry and is also discussed in my “Onward and Upward” book.

Myth 2: Help is just around the corner

Would that it were true! One of the things that first got me interested in homelessness was discovering that our local council did not accommodate most single homeless people (their priority, bearing in mind their resource limitations and statutory obligations, were families and those with special needs), the local homeless night shelter could only accommodate a few (although they did try to give some help to the rest) – the result of which was that people became rough sleepers by default, and the local Citizens Advice Bureau, while being as helpful as they could, were unable to do much about the all too often lack of services that these folk needed most. This is compounded if there happens to be an addiction problem (which if not there at the start can soon develop – how else do you numb the pain of being on the streets?), there is a mental health issue (many homeless people do have or develop mental health issues yet all too often they are not helped by the “system”), the homeless person finds it hard to engage with the services designed to help (and without wanting to attribute blame, sometimes it is as a result of a breakdown in trust and relationships) or somehow they find themselves excluded because of their behaviour or having previously broken the rules. Moreover, there is a severe lack of affordable accommodation, which is not helped if the homeless person is jobless or on reduced benefits (which is often the case). While some rough sleepers can operate independently if found accommodation, many need support. There is a lot of help out there, as the rough sleeper leaflet I prepared, about to be put into the public domain, shows. However, there still remains lots of people who are homeless and who want to be housed, but, sadly, aren’t.

Myth 3: Moving people on will remove the problem

If only, and how nice to remove these inconvenient folk who are blots on our high streets are two possible responses! We could rid our High Street of rough sleepers in the hope they will engage with the services out there but as I explained earlier too often this doesn’t happen either because these folk are unwilling and unable to engage or the services we think ought to exist don’t. While I am all for removing aggressive beggars or those who propagate anti-social behaviour (some of those who do are not homeless incidentally) from our streets what we end up doing in many cases is merely to shift the problem to somewhere else and alienate the very people who really could do with a good dose of human kindness.

Myth 4: Rough sleepers are worthless beggars

It is true that some of the rough sleepers we see in the town centre are there to beg money from the passing public that can then be spent on drugs and alcohol. There are some beggars who have got begging down to a fine art as a way to make money but these are a minority; most have significant needs.  In my experience some rough sleepers beg and some don’t; some spend the money on drugs and alcohol; some spend the money on necessities like food. Some beggars are aggressive; most aren’t. Some are grateful; some aren’t. One I know even pronounces a blessing, whether or not he is given anything, and I for one feel blessed as a result! As for being worthless, that can never be true as John 3v16 clearly shows!

Where do we go next?

While I would want to dispel these and other myths, all this begs the question, what do we do? Some things we can’t change or if there is to be a change it will require either a major shift in political will or a lot more people helping, who are motivated by human compassion, or probably both. Thank God there are many I can name in Southend who are thus motivated, religious and non, but I won’t name them as I don’t want to embarrass them. They seek to help the homeless and they are making a difference. Today I met Fred (not his real name) for the first time. He clearly had got the message: “don’t give money to beggars”. Instead, when approached, he brought the beggar a cup of coffee which was so much appreciated. When chided by some passing public, he suggested they might like to consider buying our beggar friend a burger to go with it!

Maybe, the next time you see a homeless person and about to walk by on the other side, try for a moment to put yourself in his (or as is increasingly becoming the case) her shoes and think what it is that person might need and what it is you can do to help. The one thing you can do is to acknowledge them and show basic human kindness. And one word of caution: when you engage with the homeless you will find things are rarely as they seem and you will be disappointed and let down, and experience shows many well intended persons burn out. But as the good book reminds us: “it is more blessed to give than to receive“, and of course to “love thy neighbour“.