In my dotage, I find not only do I repeat myself but I get irritated when asked to do so. I realize since starting this blog six months ago, I have returned to the subject of homelessness at least six times:
- Myths about rough sleeping
- Southend church winter night shelters
- Helping the homeless
- Rent deposit schemes
- Housing justice
- Street Spirit
And while I am tempted to think I have said all that needs saying, something always crops up that makes me realize I haven’t and, besides which, given people tend to be fickle etc., there is a need to reinforce what has been said already. I take comfort that it took nigh on fifty years between William Wilberforce starting his campaign to abolish slavery and slavery being abolished, and that he must have preached the same message a countless number of times, often to the same people, before seeing his dream realized.
While issues around homelessness are a principle area for my community activism, campaigning isn’t. Rather, I see a need which sometimes appears desperate and realize not only can’t I ignore it but that I can do something that makes a difference. In the past week, I have seen and bumped into a number of my homeless friends and realize that for many their situations are desperate and with a few I fear for their survival. I try to help in two main ways. Firstly, I try to do something useful to help, some of the ways I have already described in my books and earlier blog posts. Secondly, I write about it and hopefully encourage others, in all sorts of capacities, to do their bit to alleviate the worst effects.
When one of my Facebook friends posted an innocuous but challenging video link, it sparked of quite a debate and exchange of views. The video was a record of an experiment. A homeless man asked for some money to buy a coffee from passersby while well dressed, and received what he asked. When he did so, dressed in his normal attire, he received nothing. As well as dissecting the lessons that might be drawn, several questions were posed and observations made. One of the most insightful questions, in my view, was around help homeless people might expect to receive from our main local homeless charity. There is a perception, widely held, that any who presented themselves as homeless, provided they follow the rules, will receive all the help they need. As far as I can work out, that is not so, and I have built up a considerable amount of evidence, based on speaking to numerous homeless folk and observing them, to back my claim, and can suggest all sorts of reasons why.
It was back in my college days when I first came across the impressive (at the time) saying: “there are lies, dammed lies and statistics”, which helped turn me into the skeptic I have become. I have also come to realize that when making a case, I should back it up with evidence, yet I have found that people often choose to ignore evidence if it challenges their prejudices and pre-conceptions. I have found that people do this when it comes to homelessness and can easily fall into the trap my friend was keen to avoid believing that people who are homeless can find a home, with their basic needs met, provided they “play the game”. Should they not do so, then we can wash our hands rationalizing we had acted reasonably.
For the past four weeks, I have interviewed homeless people and have found what I have always known, and have shared in previous postings. People are homeless for a variety of reasons and the scary thing is it could happen to any of us and the reason it doesn’t is because we are lucky. People who are homeless often have issues, typically mental health or alcohol or drug misuse, and often the services we might expect to be available aren’t. Because of the shortage of suitable, affordable accommodation, even the fully compos mentis find they can’t access this. Most accommodation that is half decent is beyond the reach of most of the homeless.
Many homeless people are unable to work and some do not receive benefits. The tightening of the benefit system and the reducing the welfare pot and imposing more conditions are all reasons why some lose out. It is worse for foreigners who have “no recourse to public funds”. While there is provision for the alcoholic and drug user, my experience is that many go unhelped and this is a confounding factor when it comes to finding suitable accommodation. Support for those who need it when it comes to a mental health issue is often inadequate and this can also be a barrier when it comes to trying to find accommodation. None of this is to decry the work of the services that do help, but this is the reality we are faced with.
I am heartened that there are many, including those in the Council and statutory and voluntary services who are keen to find solutions to the present predicament, as well as ordinary members of the public who do their bit. While things can always improve, there is a lot of joined up working. Yet there remain frustrations, especially when I survey the homeless scene and can see so many, including people I have got to know, still on the streets when they shouldn’t be, and often they have an understandable degree of distress or, as has happened recently, some fairly responsible homeless people, having found a spot that was safe and secure, were moved on, yet again, with nowhere obvious or half decent to move on to.
I have suggested elsewhere what could be done and will reflect more in a future post. I am reminded of the words of a former headmaster concerning my particularly disappointing school report: “the remedy is obvious”. I try not to fall into the enticing trap of taking sides, especially with the powerful or those who hold the purse strings, as some sadly do, and try to be wise, courageous and serene, as advocated in Reinhold Neibur’s famous serenity prayer.
I believe the most important thing is finding homeless solutions and I need to do what it takes to achieve this end. Nothing else matters; certainly not ego or pride. I respect the work of the big homeless charities, but as my findings show, many needs, especially regarding accommodation, remain unmet and yet there are those who persist in pushing the idea that there is nothing more we need to do. Tell that to God when you face Him on the Day of Judgement!
While I still manage to upset some people in the process of advocating on behalf of the homeless (and other things besides), and this despite my best efforts not to, my aim is to get people with the heart to help and do so working with others, especially those who are in a position to provide a valuable service, and including those we may not always agree or get along with, all in order to implement homeless solutions that meet the needs.