What can we do better in 2020?

One of the soup kitchens operating in my town has recently announced an informal consultation …

I have just been listening to a Radio 4 program that I thought was very good: “Feeding the Problem”, which asks many questions including one that touches a personal chord: “Is the sandwich you buy for a rough sleeper doing more harm than good?” One of the people who think harm has been working with and for homeless people for fifteen years and has in my view earned the right to offer an unpopular opinion. He argued that by giving out food, it merely exasperates the problems of homelessness. All were agreed giving money is bad and given a recent post by a Facebook friend saying it is a good thing and recently seeing a kind hearted friend give money to someone purporting to be homeless, it got me thinking.

The problem when giving money to those we don’t know, which is invariably the case, is not just the recipient may be bogus (which in experience is often the case – most homeless people I know do NOT beg), but it often feeds an addiction habit that reinforces the downhill spiral. As for giving out food, that is a trickier one, especially given after I write this, I am off to my soup kitchen that does this very thing. The point made was that giving food digs away at homeless person’s dignity and maintains a dependency culture rather than getting the help he / she needs. Points were made that the availability of food (most homeless people knew where to go and often had much more than what was needed) meant some did not engage with services. It was suggested the best response was to show human kindness, spending time with homeless folk reaffirming their humanity and encouraging them to get the sort of help that is documented in my own town’s rough sleeper leaflet (see here).

While I like to think Southend is special given the number of people and agencies trying to help the homeless, often by going that extra mile, the half hour program that was set in Manchester, revealed there is also similar help to be had there, including (so it is claimed) initiatives aimed at no second night out on the street. It made the valid point that even if someone is accommodated, often they cannot sustain their accommodation, because of issues around drug or alcohol addiction and mental health. It was good to hear from a soup kitchen volunteer insisting their service still met a need. The program made the point rough sleeping in Manchester has, despite a more recent decrease, partly due to more government funding and additional services, overall it has increased significantly in recent years, something that I am pretty sure is also true of Southend.

The question “what can we do better in 2020” is a tricky one, and I look forward to the outcome of the consultation, where no doubt valid points will be made that may not even have occurred to me. Unlike in many areas of community endeavor, when it comes to homelessness, I tend not to campaign and refrain from criticizing the way others address the issues. I also take the view to neither side with service providers nor service users and that most have strong views and I am not always right. I am invariably moved by how much help is out there and the number of kind people there are who are committed to helping the homeless. Putting aside things I have little control over, like building more houses and providing better support services (without which some will be unable to sustain their tenancy and thus revert to rough sleeping), there is much we can do as volunteers with limited financial resources. There are many valid ideas of what we can do better, but might I suggest three …

Just being kind to homeless people, who I find I cannot avoid these days whenever I venture into our town centre, makes an important difference. Volunteering for services like mentioned in the afore-mentioned rough sleeper leaflet, especially the “behind the scenes” stuff, is also something we can do, depending on time, talents and circumstances. And finally, working smarter by working together is also important. I have found when it comes to helping the homeless, happily religious and political differences hardly ever comes into it. An organisation that encourages this in my town is called SHAN.


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