Killing (the homeless) with kindness

Often the accusation is made against “do gooders” (those who try to help others), in this case it is the homeless, that in doing what they do they end up killing (them) with kindness. Applying one online dictionary definition, it culminates in the kind person overwhelming or harming the object of their kindness with mistaken or excessive benevolence. While wanting to critically look at this phenomena, I should say that the older I get the more I appreciate kind people (and we need more of their ilk) but at the same time it is sad when that kindness is sometimes misplaced, and is why I am blogging.

There have been three triggers, particularly, in the past 24 hours that has led to my writing on this subject: a leaflet, a newspaper article and a television program, which I will take in that order. Starting with the leaflets titled “Killing with kindness” and “Why giving to those who beg does more harm than good”, set in a London context, the thrust of the argument contained therein is that many we see in town centres purporting to be homeless are often begging and people wanting to respond in kindness are taken in because many of these people aren’t really homeless and the money they get from begging helps to feed a drug habit, which can have fatal consequences. Also, there should be no reason for people sleeping rough given there are free hostel spaces available. People are advised to give their money to the various charities that help the homeless. Applying here in Southend, it is true that many of those who appear as homeless do fit the descriptions in the report and some of the advice is valid, even though it should not let us off the hook in showing practical kindness. The reality is Southend has a rough sleeper population of no-one knows exactly how many, but likely in excess of 50. Most of these can’t and won’t be housed by existing arrangements, led by the homeless charity, HARP. Many aren’t because they do not attract housing benefit or cannot be accommodated for a variety of reasons, typically around the issue of complex, unmet needs and the inability and/or unwillingness to engage with and follow the rules set out by such services. Moreover, while some rough sleepers are on benefits etc., some are destitute.

The second item is a BBC television documentary titled “Hidden and Homeless”. In it “Professor Green sets out to discover the modern face of homelessness, changing our perceptions of who the homeless are and the harsh reality of their lives. This is well worth the one hour viewing and in it the presenter gets alongside a young homeless man in Manchester and two homeless people in London, who are sofa surfing. There is much to take in by way of content and, while much of it relates to what I know already, it still is harrowing and highlights a significant unaddressed and increasing problem in our country. One of the disturbing things to learn in the Manchester is how many homeless people are addicted to Legal Highs and of one tragic story that happened during the period filming took place concerning a homeless death. Regarding the two homeless Londoners, both seemed compos mentis, doing the right things, but due to the circumstances of life they have found themselves homeless with no easy route back to being housed. The program also highlighted that we are seeing an increase in homelessness and a decrease in suitable accommodation, and that in any right thinking person’s book amounts to a crisis. While my own experience has been that alcohol is the main substance problem, Legal Highs is increasingly becoming an issue, and the reality is once on the streets people often resort to such as a way to escape the pain. The vulnerability of the homeless, highlighted by the death that was reported, is something too we have seen locally, all too often.

The third item is a report in today’s (10/2) Southend Echo, titled: “Bus station patrols keep out vagrants – public outcry led council to use security to deter rough sleepers”. The issue of rough sleepers sleeping in and around the town centre has been a long running saga (recently I blogged on the Council evicting those sleeping in tents on the cliffs). I can quite understand the Councils dilemma given that some of the rough sleepers using the bus shelters (one of the places that might be deemed as safe, secure and protected from the elements), and other places, do exhibit anti-social behavior or present concerns regarding public safety. My main gripe is where do they move to and the disregard to any dissention that what the Council offer, “often along the lines go and visit HARP and they will sort you out” (where in many cases they can’t and don’t) is wrong and I will continue to say so and chide those who let themselves off the hook by saying there in nothing that they can do. I suggest the best way to find out where the truth lay is to talk to the rough sleepers themselves and try to understand their perspective. Two interesting snippets in the Echo report are people observing nurses bringing prescriptions to rough sleepers, suggesting the bus station had become some sort of homeless base and the Councillor responsible pointing to an increase in homelessness as a result of London boroughs dumping their homeless onto Southend.

This brings me back to the subject of killing with kindness. My own roles in one of the Soup Kitchens (Street Spirit) and in one of the church winter night shelters (Ferndale) is along the lines that rather than killing by kindness we are saving lives by kindness. However, I well recognize there has been a lot done by well intentioned people that might be deemed to be having the opposite effect. My other role, in connection with Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN), tries to join up the likes of the Council, services to with addressing some of the issues facing the homelessness, established charities, churches and the new kids on the block who simply want to help, in order to find ways we can complement what we do and effect enduring solutions. There seems to me always to be a need for mentors, advocates and simply kind people. What these three stories tell us are the needs of the homeless population are monumental. Much needs to happen to satisfactorily address these issues.

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