Homelessness – an increasing problem

A friend of mine recently sent me a leaflet given out by some anti-crime related entity in a town I happen to know but distant from where I now live and operate. I did not give it much thought until I came around to reading it. The opening blurb was: “Homelessness has become an increasing problem in ***** please report all incidents no matter how small of anti-social behavior so we can collect evidence to assist the local authorities with our fight against homelessness in *****”. The leaflet elaborated the different types of “problems” that could be encountered. The reader was then invited to make contact (and told how) if there is “an incident of a rough sleeper”, especially if it involved anti-social behavior.

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My initial reaction was disgust and righteous indignation at the tone of the leaflet, despite recognizing the reasonable request that one does not have to put up with anti-social behaviour. Sadly, I suspect the fight against homelessness here was more to do with moving the homeless on rather than helping them. While I am well aware that homeless people are often involved in incidents of anti-social behavior, although, in my experience, this often involves those who purport to be homeless, often as a means to get money to feed a drink or drug habit by begging, but for the genuine homeless it is about surviving on the streets. Many I know who are homeless are themselves victims of anti-social behavior (and crime) rather than perpetrators and need to be treated with compassion and respect rather than labeled as a problem to be dealt with, when their accommodation needs and factors that contribute to their situation (e.g. mental health and addiction issues) are not being dealt with.

I should state a view that those responsible for public safety, notably the police, have a difficult job and my own local experience is they often go about a difficult task well, although I do get regular reports of those feeling hard done by and the police acting more heavy handed than they should. Sometimes it is a fine call and a grey area. A few days ago, I went to McDonalds during the day and there were two men purporting to be homeless. I know many such but not in this instance. One had a bottle of alcohol and the other was asking passers by for money. I can see the police would want to move on such people. But what if they weren’t drinking or begging or more pertinently genuinely homeless? Where do you move them onto? Would not a better approach, having appraised the safety situation, be to offer a listening ear and provide a gentle word and apt advice, or even taking them into McDonalds and buying a cup of tea?

As someone involved in helping to run a soup kitchen that regularly engages with rough sleepers to help with their material needs, as well as to an extent emotional and other practical needs, I am often challenged as to whether or not we are adding to rather than addressing the rough sleeping “problem” in our town. I have thought long and hard on this question, knowing full well there are a number of agencies that do help, including around these practical issues and finding accommodation, and that is great. But equally, there are many that aren’t helped, and the reasons are many and complex. Besides meeting an obvious practical need, especially for some without money to buy stuff, I often think our biggest contribution is sending out a message to our homeless friends – you matter!

I don’t have a magic solution (I wish I did although I am now of the view there isn’t one). I know the system has many gaps that are huge and there is a dire shortage of suitable, affordable accommodation. Sometimes, those in a position of authority hinder rather than help. I recognise too there are many who abuse kindness being shown or fail to help themselves, even when quite able to do so. I still have an dream of a one stop drop in shop to counter the ping pong we often see, or something along the lines of a safe place which not only provides accommodation with support as needed, also gives opportunity to work, train and socialise, and give back to the community, in holistic way. Along with others of like mind, I try to do what I can, very aware that what I can and do do is much limited, without judging or trying to rationalize or resolve matters that are way beyond my capabilities and calling, and encouraging others to do likewise: i.e. to love our homeless neighbour as we love ourselves.

My philosophy remains tough love and hospitality (aka St. Benedict), being wise and discreet and cooperation with all and sundry if leading to the right outcomes. I wish the people who wrote that leaflet, and I daresay there are many around who are of a similar mind, including in my own town, also see it in that way.

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