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Charitable Musings, Minutiae, Philosophy

It could never happen to me: Homeless

“I honestly don’t know why people would want to be homeless.”

“They should get a job; nothing in this life is free.”

“If he can afford to feed that dog, he doesn’t need my money.”

Have you heard people say such things? Have you, like Arctic Monkeys, wondered what went wrong to make someone live on the streets? We don’t hear a lot about homelessness these days; unless you live in a major city, you might not come across it too much yourself. The Government has worked hard over the last few years to address homelessness, and some people might argue that it’s easier to get help and shelter for the night than ever before…
but the statistics don’t tell the whole story.

You lose more than a place to live when you lose your home; while we might focus on the hardships of living rough and getting enough food, there are other considerations that many people don’t think about.

More than your home, you can lose your friends, your education, your bank account, your physical safety, your emotional well-being, your career, your very dignity. You can be in danger of losing everything that makes you who you are, your very identity.

These losses can’t be sorted out with a quick fix of cheap accommodation; they go to the very heart of the person, even when temporary or semi-permanent housing is found, the damage homelessness can cause to a person’s prospects can take many years to sort through.

Downhill

People don’t choose to be homeless; life is complex and things happen to force people into situations they’d rather not be in. Young people are at serious risk on the streets, and yet they can believe they are at serious risk at ‘home’ too. Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse can drive a young person to run away and try to fend for themselves. Other times, loveless families can force an offspring out too early for them to cope.

Older people may find themselves living from hand-to-mouth, and then losing their job for one reason or another, such as illness, or redundancy. How can the rent get paid if there’s no income? Housing benefit from the council exists to help people keep their homes, but it doesn’t cover the full rent amount, and won’t pay a large mortgage. Thousands of houses are re-possessed by the banks each year, forcing the occupants to move to rented accommodation, if they can afford it.

If you lose your job, and then your house, how are you going to feel? It’s not unusual to fall into despair, and loose the energy and will to sort things out.

What if you’re already emotionally vulnerable? What if losing your house causes you to break-down? How will you search for a new job if you’re homeless and depressed?

Getting off the streets and getting a roof over your head may be the priority, but the hardships don’t end there. Temporary accommodation or the flats and Bed & Breakfast places that Social Services might find for you are often run down and in dodgy parts of town. You may have a place to live, but you still have to recover from the difficulties homelessness caused. How will you afford the clothes needed for your next job interview when you can’t even afford decent food? How do you keep in touch with friends if you can’t afford a phone?

It happened to me

I was homeless for a short while when I was a teenager; I didn’t live in a city at the time, so I seemed to be the only guy sleeping rough in the town. In October, in the cold winter.

My relationship with my father had been distant for many years, but had been deteriorating into hatred and violence for many months. I was often locked out of the house, and slept in the shed. I was scared of being in the house with him, and I was scared of being kicked out. We didn’t have the Internet back then, and I didn’t know about Social Services or anything.

I slept at several friends’ houses for a while, and then I slept on benches near a park. I met a lot of ‘funny’ people and learned a lot about society. I didn’t have much to do, or anywhere to go, and I was hungry a lot of the time. Worse, I felt dirty and cold all the time. I was trying to finish my A-levels, and so I tried to attend College as normal, but my depression was pretty bad, and I couldn’t cope. While everyone else was talking about university, I was wondering how I was going to earn money.

I got some advice from a friend about housing benefit, and they found me a B&B where I could live for a good while. Social Services didn’t give me very much to live on, so I couldn’t afford new clothes very often, or go out much with my friends. I tried to eat as little as possible so I wasn’t ‘wasting money’ but I was hungry all the time and lost a lot of weight.

I was embarrassed by my poverty, and I just wasn’t able to keep up with my friends.

If I had been in a city, I would probably have been begging on the streets; I found the Social Services system confusing and scary, I didn’t have the confidence to ask for the help I really needed, and without my friends I would have been a lot worse off.

A friend found me a part-time job, but the difficulty is that a job can actually pay less than the benefits from Social Services, so you need to understand what benefits are available, like Income Support, and Housing Benefit, to supplement your wages.

What’s the Big Issue?

The big issue for me is not just the hardships of living on the street, but the social stigma attached to the unfortunate circumstances of being homeless.

I’m often in cities now, and I buy the Big Issue magazine fairly regularly, and I have a habit of automatically giving money to anyone who asks for it. My friends say I’m a mug, and that by handing over cash I’m fuelling people’s drug addictions or that I’m making them ‘rich’. I don’t know what to believe, but I know I don’t want to make a negative judgement against a person who may be in dire circumstances. Giving a pound doesn’t hurt me, even if I’ve been ‘conned’. When I’m hungry in the city, on the way to the train station, I often buy two sandwiches, and offer one to a person on the street. We sit and talk and eat together, and I’ve made friendships with a couple in the past. It’s actually nice to see a friendly face in the crowd, and I appreciate knowing they’re there for me, and I think they appreciate my conversation, and the fact that I listen to them.

It’s all about respect; your self-respect, and the respect you have for other members of our community.

P.S. regarding the statements that opened this article…

Nobody ‘chooses’ to be homeless; it’s a life event that is forced upon them.
They may already have a job, full-time or part-time. Also, job-seeking when you’re homeless and without a full wardrobe can very hard.
‘That dog’ may be a life-long pet that continues to need care, or ‘that dog’ may have been kicked out and loveless as well.

For further information on how to deal with homeless issues, and how you can help, visit:

www.bigissue.com/

www.homeless.org.uk/

www.crisis.org.uk/

www.homelessuk.org/

www.homelesslondon.org/

www.shelter.org.uk/
http://scotland.shelter.org.uk/
http://england.shelter.org.uk/
http://northernireland.shelter.org.uk/
http://cymru.shelter.org.uk/

[Wedge]

About Wedge

I’m Wedge, and this is my website! I’ve worked within internal communications since 2004, managing intranets and digital comms. Now I’m a freelance comms and intranet specialist - I help organisations plan and improve their intranets. I work with other agencies, and write a lot of blog and magazine articles. I founded the Intranet Now conference. You can catch up with me on Twitter - I’m @Wedge.

2 thoughts on “It could never happen to me: Homeless

  • An excellent article Wedge, and one close to my heart for reasons I won’t go into here. I don’t believe anyone who gives money to a homeless person is a mug – I feel that anyone who would say that is possibly trying to justify their own selfish reasons for not helping a fellow person in need.

    I made friends with a few homeless people when I was working in London and I would never ever judge a person’s dependence on drugs or alcohol – don’t many of us use such things at times to get us through? I don’t see help as fuelling an addiction, I see it as helping them cope the only way they can or know how. Yes, I would rather buy a sandwich and a cup of tea, but I’m also happy to hand over cash – how a person chooses to spend that money is up to them – or must society remove that right from them as well?

    I remember an afternoon I spent in north London with a middle aged guy who was both drunk and homeless. I bought a couple of bottles of cider and we sat together for several hours while he talked to me. Only seven years previously he had been wearing a suit every day to his job in the city, and returning home at night to his wife and kids. Everything changed overnight when his entire family were killed in a terrible accident. Unable to cope with the pain, he turned to alcohol and before long he lost his job and then his home. His friends all abandoned him and was left with nothing.

    All that remained was a shell of the man he had once been and he saw no way out. He said I’d been the only person he’d spoken to about it for years and the fact that I’d taken the time to listen without judgement meant more to him than anything. He just needed to be heard, understood and accepted as a human being with feelings and a past.

    I went to the cash machine and drew out every penny I had and gave it to him. I’ve no idea how he spent it – and I don’t mind – that was his choice to make. I looked out for him after that and although I never saw him again, I think of him every time I’m in London.

    Homelessness isn’t a choice, it’s forced upon people, and it can happen to anyone.

    Thank you for your article Wedge and for sharing such a personal story with us.

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