How I see homelessness – then and now

I suppose it was around 15 years ago when I became a lot more aware of homelessness. I was a Street Pastor and part of what we did was to patrol the streets around our local (Southend) High Street between the hours of 10pm Friday / Saturday and 4am the following day Saturday / Sunday. We would often come across homeless folk or at least presented themselves as homeless, typically ten on a shift. Some weren’t genuine but even among those who weren’t there was evident need, and what we did was to show human kindness, give out cups of hot drinks and sometimes other items that were useful.

In the last 10 years, homelessness has been my main area of community activism. I have written about what I have found out in my books: “Outside the Camp” and “Homeless Reflections”. My involvement has included helping in a Soup Kitchen (Street Spirit), managing a homeless night shelter and chairing the Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN). One of the points noted at the time when SHAN began was the number of single homeless not getting the help they needed. While I try to avoid going down the path of being a case worker, leaving it to others who are better resourced to do this, I do take a pastoral interest and while most of what I do is limited in scope, I take all these activities seriously and try to deliver and encourage others who are also able to help the homeless. Despite seeing many more services for helping the homeless, including an amazing cohort of volunteers from all sections of society wanting to help, the need is as great as ever. For example, in the season ending two weeks ago for church winter night shelters, we looked after more guests than ever before.

As I am often at pains to point out, besides not being a case worker, which I would need to be if I were to begin sorting out some of the often complex issues facing a homeless person, I seek to take a pragmatic, no-nonsense approach. I state that if I were to help, the person being helped shows a degree of respect and reciprocation, although recognising for many being on the streets takes its toll on social niceties, and even then there is a need to recognise boundaries and limitations, knowing full well when that does not happen the people offering help burn out or give up disillusioned. I am mindful of the words of Jesus: “the poor you have with you always”, and I know that applies to homelessness in Southend, despite pious statements claiming homelessness will be essentially eradicated at a time in the not too distant future (which is conveniently extended when that date has come and gone) and if there were any left homeless it did not have to be that way and it was their choice.

All this is so more pertinent from a personal perspective. I do not claim any special virtue; I do what I do because something needs doing and I am able to do it. While I do feel and cry, having in my time as a homeless activist witnessed many a death, tragedy and ruined life from among the rough sleeper community, I take a fairly pragmatic approach. Sometimes I see evidence of people turning their lives around, and that is reward enough. I try not to get involved in controversy, recognizing while government agencies and big charities don’t always do what I think they should, it is better to work with them whenever one can and not be too critical, realizing the end result is to get homeless people to a better place. I try to avoid falling out, mindful the egos do get in the way and people can be easily upset or taking sides in a dispute. I try not to get involved in campaigning, not because it isn’t needed (we need a lot more affordable accommodation and support services if homelessness is to be cracked) but because others are already on the case and there is a lot that needs doing at grass roots level I can help with. There is no single method when it comes to overcoming homelessness and am aware of many good ideas that could be adapted locally. I also maintain the biggest need is relating to the homeless themselves who need to be empowered if their situation is to improve.

When two weeks ago the night shelter season ended, several thoughts crossed my mind. The first was a degree of weariness and relief that I can have some respite. There was a degree of frustration, seeing so much unfinished business. I was mindful that while many a homeless person are perfectly decent, some can be a handful, especially if intoxicated and with feelings of entitlement. While it was true, we played our part getting some guests to a better place, including being accommodated, it was also true that others would be back on the streets, especially foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds and if unable to deal with the demons of substance misuse or with mental health issues. These would typically sofa surf, live in squats, sleep in doorways or camp in open spaces, only to be moved on by the Council or Police, a reoccurring happening. Visiting the town centre as I did yesterday, I saw a few of my homeless friends, as I generally do when I visit the town. Some were sitting idly around, maybe with a can of alcoholic drink, and a couple greeted me as I was drinking a coffee outside a cafe with a friend. I was mindful also of the many agencies that do help in various needed ways and wondered what part I could play in helping out.

Given health and other issues, my ability to run around or initiate new projects has been curtailed. While I can see more clearly now what needs to be done, my ability to do it is less. While I welcome an increase in homelessness provision, even in the past year, and believe my own town, Southend, does better than many authorities when it comes to helping the homeless, the gaps are still wide and the unmet needs are many. Some of those tackling these are doing a fantastic job with limited resources and lack of recognition. So if I have a message, especially to those in power, it is while there is much being done, there is still much to do, and some of it cannot be done, at least humanly speaking. And if you want to help (I hope you do) recognize and capacity build the “good guys” who are doing the work. I too am resolved to play my part, especially looking out for the pastoral needs of my homeless friends and encouraging a new generation of homeless activists to play their part in helping the homeless. I should add by way of a caveat that what I have written is from my own town, Southend, perspective, and based on my own practice over the years. The manifold need is of course national and international and there is much that should and could be done.

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