The question “where do we send the homeless for help?” cropped up today as it has many times previously, and in all sorts of contexts and circumstances. One would be void of compassion when meeting a homeless person and then ignore the question, having done what we can to help? Sometimes, a homeless person turns up on ones door step, and while it should not let one off the hook when it comes to helping, what is often needed is information on the help available, although whether or not that help is accepted is another question.
Part of my community activism in the area of homelessness has been trying to help homeless people while recognizing the limitations of what I can do and supporting those who serve the homeless. Often there is the uncomfortable feeling that if I do signpost a homeless folk the service either doesn’t exist or it falls way short of doing what the homeless person needs. Often people we try to help do not have the wherewithal or are so disempowered they don’t help themselves when a way forward presents itself. They are casualties of a society and a system that is broken, and they themselves are broken, and everybody’s circumstance is unique. Part of the broken society is a lack of affordable accommodation and support services for those with issues around mental health and substance misuse. It is evident that those who are genuinely homeless have a plethora or needs and a variety of survival strategies. While services do exist to help and many do excellent work, often they fail to provide a good deal of all what a homeless person needs. Often, for a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some not, the homeless do not engage with services or follow advice. Sometimes advice given is sound; and sometimes not. Sometimes good offers are made; and sometimes not. Sometimes services are more limited than is first indicated – no recourse to public funds or no local connection can be problematic.
I have long advocated a regime of tough love and damage limitation for individuals who want to help. By that I mean we need to show compassion and humanity and yet not to give money as it is more likely the people who present themselves are cons or will misuse the money that is given to them, and we don’t do for people that which they could and should do for themselves. Moreover, we are limited and not only do people who go out of their way to help too often burn out prematurely but they are often played off against others in a better position to help. Yet help we must and while these may appear to be cynical comments, my involvement with Street Spirit, Church Winter Night Shelter and SHAN speaks for itself.
I regularly meet many homeless people and every week I engage one way or another with a good number of them, many I know already and some I meet for the first time. In one sense I can only answer the question from my own personal perspective and the local context in which I operate: Southend, and yet my own experience and practice can be used as an example of what can be done, despite having long come to terms that I can only do so much and even if I was Superman and there were many others working to deal with the gaps and unmet needs there would still much to be done when it comes to helping the homeless. I refer to the “where to go for help if you are a rough sleeper in Southend” leaflet mindful there are many helps “out there” and different helps suit different people. Also, while people need help and to know where to go for help, and even help getting there, one of the most valuable helps is when we empower that person so he/she can help him/her self.
- While I don’t engage with every rough sleeper I see (and I see many having identified them because of my previous knowledge and experience) I engage with many, if only by a polite acknowledgement, a friendly smile and affirming their humanity and letting them know that they matter.
- If I can help I do (giving money is an easy option and is often not wise so I avoid) but time and tea and friendly encouragement are often good places to begin. I sometimes extend to giving out sleeping bags and socks etc. and making available a wealth of knowledge that I am happy to share if that is what people want.
- If it is appropriate and opportunity allows, I tell them about services like the Council, HARP, Family Mosaic, STARS, Storehouse, CAB, the various soup kitchens etc. and sometimes point people in the right direction on practical matters like places to stay. I do not judge either the person or the service and unemotionally state the facts as I see them.
One hopes things will improve. I see many hopeful signs, such as the law coming into effect next year to reduce homelessness and the wonderful people who want to help evidenced by the many homeless voluntary organisations. But I am realistic too. Given tonight in Southend there are likely at least 50 persons sleeping rough suggests there is a long way to go. We are where we are and we do what we can and sometimes that is where we have to leave it. I hope by mentioning these things it will inspire others to help.
Update 31/07/2017: I have just updated the “where to go for help if you are a rough sleeper in Southend” leaflet (freely downloadable here), which tries to give latest accurate information on services that benefit rough sleepers and how to access these, bearing in mind not all services apply to all people, and often only a small percentage. Even so there is a considerable amount of help covering a wide range of circumstances, for help is out there and a lot more than what the leaflet shows. There are many who want to help and many services that may be helpful. It should be added though that many rough sleepers we talk to will claim they have accessed all the help that is available (true to widely varying extents) and yet they remain rough sleeping. The trick is to try to get folk to a position they can help themselves, realizing with every good intent there are limits, and we need to be kind and supportive when opportunities arise.