What I have learned about homelessness

I offer these thoughts based on several years of dealing with and trying to help homeless folk, mostly from the perspective of being a volunteer working with various agencies, formally and informally, with those who are religious and those who are not. I don’t claim to have all the answers, I don’t have most of them, but experience does count for something, and I have seen a lot. Nor do I purport to be a paragon of virtue or best practice, for there are many who do more than I when it comes to making that all important difference.

The need

It cannot be denied there are homeless people. How many we do not know for sure but the number is significant. What is disputable is whether those who are homeless need to be, given there are agencies that help. My response is unequivocally there is a great deal of homelessness that even when there is help to be had and the people who are homeless want to be helped and are prepared to engage with services, they still remain homeless. The reason for this is many and various and it often depends on the homeless person and his/her circumstances. The big sadness, as far as I am concerned, is that I come across people who dearly would love to have a roof over their heads but for all sorts of reasons that is not going to happen anytime soon. Those reasons include an acute lack of affordable accommodation and hostel availability and for a good number of homeless folk their situation regarding issues like alcohol addiction and mental health make it nigh impossible to accommodate them without the right sort of support in place. Also, money is an issue. Even those who qualify for full benefit entitlement find difficulty finding suitable accommodation and there are some who cannot claim benefits and are unable to find paid work. In my experience, almost all homeless people need to survive e.g. having food and clothes and some sort of shelter and they need to be affirmed as human beings. I have found such needs can be met and we can help meet them. I have also found that, while it is important to work toward empowering the needy to help themselves, there is also a need for those who will go the extra mile to help them achieve this. I should also add that while there is a need for a compassionate human response, unless there is a change in heart on the part of the one with the need that progress is often much limited, which is why I for one cannot discount religion to bring about such a change.

The helpers

I could also add “and those who don’t help and those who hinder more than they help”. As for those who do help, they come in all shapes and sizes and, while it is to be expected that it is the Christians that disproportionately feature among those who help the most, helpers also come from many religions and none. For some, responding to need on the basis of a common humanity is reason enough. Politically, those that help are of all persuasions and none, including a number of Conservatives being involved. Religion wise, helpers include staunch fundamentalists and woolly liberals. There is considerable variation when it comes to motives and what sort of help is provided, including how much and how good the help is, and this sometimes gives rise to conflict, including clashes in personality, more than what is healthy given the need. Sometimes there is a need to strike a balance when it comes to campaigning for change, responding to needs that present themselves and working with others, who may see things differently, in order to realize common goals. I have found that it is best to avoid negativity, do what needs to be done where I can make a difference and build relationships with disparate partners in order to best help those who are homeless. As for those who don’t help, probably the majority of the population, some will have good reasons including helping in other needy areas, and some will not see there is a need or if they do admit it is their problem too. Some hinder, evidenced by many instances of plain nastiness imposed upon vulnerable persons. Some statutory authorities either do the least they can get away with to help or focus on ways of moving on homeless people, sometimes resulting in significant distress. Realistically, a whole range of help is available on all sorts of issues, despite there still being gaps where appropriate and needed help is not available, which is why I helped produce a “where to go for help if you are a rough sleeper” leaflet. Having this knowledge is important, even though it is often a matter of leading a horse to water but the horse doesn’t necessarily drink. Having a realistic understanding of those who help and those who don’t is important and to work with what is there to get best results.

The helped

Just as with the helpers, those who are helped come in all shapes and sizes and each have their own unique story to tell. There are also those who need help that don’t get it, maybe because they refuse any help that is offered or maybe due to factors that make it difficult for help to be provided e.g. when the person is violent and abusive and as has already been stated the help needed isn’t available or is available only after going through many hoops. I have found among the many rough sleepers I have met, there is the good, the bad and the ugly and sometimes the good can become the bad if, for example, large amounts of alcohol are consumed. Sadly, alcohol is a recurring theme among some of the rough sleepers, which has untold consequences. It is well to be circumspect and to maintain boundaries and recognize our limitations, while being friendly and showing compassion. There is a tendency for rough sleepers, like most vulnerable persons, to be manipulative, not tell the whole truth and not fully engage with the help that is available, which can be frustrating. Most rough sleepers have redeeming and indeed endearing features and are generally appreciative of whatever help is given. Many I have found to be interesting people and some are surprisingly courteous, cultured and insightful. I have witnessed countless acts of kindness and generosity by several. I have found it best to be direct and honest, while being empathetic and respectful in my dealings and to avoid patronizing and being judgmental and not to make promises I can’t keep. I try to limit my being a case worker as this can be draining and there are others better placed to help in this way (even if all too often the help given is not enough), yet what many homeless folk need are advocates that can work on his/her behalf. It is important to recognize that homelessness can happen to any one of us, irrespective of our circumstances and place in society (for there but for the grace of God go I), and while common strands can be detected, it is best to regard each homeless person as an individual with needs that are unique to him/her.

The opportunity

My early foray into substantial community work that was directed at the more vulnerable members of our society was particularly to do with mental health. One of the persons who helped inspire me to get involved often used to make the point that in our society there are many gaps in terms of unmet need and that our job was to fill in the gaps. Nowhere has this become more evident than in the area of homelessness. As I think of the areas I have recently been involved in: Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) – trying to get different organizations to identify needs and work together to meet the needs, Street Spirit – responding to the needs of rough sleepers in and around the town centre by feeding them and other acts of kindness, Street Pastors – going out on the streets in the twilight hours and often assisting homeless people, the SOS group – a drop in centre for vulnerable men often of BME origin, St. Andrews Open House – a church initiative that invites homeless folk to share a meal and hospitality and Church Winter Night Shelters (CWNS) – that during the winter months provides accommodation, I know all too well there are gaps but also it is possible to begin to fill these. There are many other initiatives whereby rough sleepers are being helped and while I don’t always see eye to eye, I respect what is done and seek to encourage and not criticise. For any asking the question what can be done to help, I have no doubt there is room for more to be done and it is often a matter of recognizing one’s own limitations, gifts and circumstances and doing what needs to be done and trying to do what one does in an efficient yet compassionate way and avoid burn out. This is easier said than done yet it needs to be said. One area that can’t be ignored is that of money and commissioning services. Too often money is thrown at services that don’t deliver but when it comes to services that are needed, money is not available. While volunteer help goes a long way, some people need paying to do what needs to be done. As I survey the helping the homeless scene, while tempted to despair I see we live in a society that, while there are many gaps, a great deal of help can be and is given. I am encouraged when I see positive responses and the considerable sacrifices people make to help the homeless, often barely recognised.

Every little helps

A lot of what I do is about showing random acts of kindness to strangers, many of which I get to know and may even become friends. I have often been tempted to think that what I and others in my situation do is inconsequential, yet the feedback that keeps coming back is that a difference is being made and those on the receiving end of these random acts appreciate what is being done even if they don’t always show it. Besides which, my mantra (and one I commend) is to do what needs to be done because it is the right thing to do and it is one of the ways whereby we show love to our neighbor as indeed we must. The challenge is not so much recognising the needs and opportunities but somehow fitting in, doing what needs to be done. It is frustrating when coming across so much human need that does not get dealt with by a few well timed interventions, especially when that would be all that it would take, but rather that need continues to manifest itself even after several years with little evidence of the need being met. The good news is we do see lives turned around; the bad news is we might see miniscule progress and sometimes regression and untimely deaths. While it is a problem, it is not necessarily my problem despite trying to act smart, bang the drum, make authorities accountable, muster the troops, network widely, do my bit etc. The poor (homeless) indeed we always have with us, but we can and must help them if we can. Finally, when I think about “every little helps”, the words of the often quoted Serenity Prayer seem apt: “God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other”.


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