So, any of you who know me know that i spend a lot of time with the homeless in our town. It is a subject that is close to my heart. A few years ago i wrote a series of 3 blogs on the subject (unfortunately because i didnt use the site for so long, wordpress deleted the site so i cant link them for you) and this week I was asked for my opinion about the homeless community by a member of the SOS bus as his sister is part of a drama group about to produce a play about homelessness. I have also been asked to speak at a local boys brigade section this week and i read an interesting letter from Green Party candidate Jason Pilling in today’s Echo (i partly agree with what he says although I disagree housing should be a priority. I don’t think there should be a priority when working with the homeless and that yes he is right shelter is important but I have seen too many people be housed and because their mental health issues/lack of life skills/addiction issues have not been addressed they very quickly lose that housing – shelter is important but i think the support is just as important and if not applied then housing becomes a sticky plaster that temporarily covers the wound but soon disappears and the wound is left exposed once more. I believe both should go hand in hand). All this has prompted me to write a blog on the issue of homelessness. Now this is a vast subject and so much could be said/written on the issue of homelessness and John Barber has written lots about the issue on his blog from whether the council does enough to his latest response to the Echo story where our councillors showed their ignorance of the situation by claiming London were dumping their homeless on to us. I asked at a recent SHAN meeting when was the last time someone spoke to the rough sleepers and asked them what they needed, what they wanted and the answer was a homeless health audit completed back in 2014!
One thing my friend on Saturday commented on was how much he didnt realise despite working on the SOS bus every week! One of the things i try to do is allow the rough sleeper’s voice to be heard and help that to be achieved because it is not something that happens often. We have a council who think they know what is best as seen by the rough sleepers on the cliff. Often we heard the council say `we are doing all we can` and they probably believe they were but it was very telling that thanks to the hard work of a local volunteer one of those rough sleepers who were evicted by bailiffs (i dread to think of the cost of the court case, eviction and bailiffs) was accomodated thanks to some creative thinking, £100 and 2 weeks. He is now very happy in his new settings and cost significantly less than the council spent out! The difference between the two approaches? The volunteer treated the rough sleeper as a human. She listened to his needs and wishes and worked with him rather than against him (or trying to force him to fit into the box that the council wanted ticking).
One thing i have learnt from working with rough sleepers is that they are human just like you and me! Now this seems a strange thing to say and is possibly obvious, but the amount of people who seem to forget this daily is terrifying. Often i will hear people saying `i went to buy a rough sleeper a sandwich the other day, when i returned with a chicken sandwich he said he didnt want chicken. If he was really homeless he would have been grateful` or something similiar. Now in one respect i can see where they are coming from but actually even if they are hungry, surely they are still allowed to choose what they want to eat and dont want to eat. If i was housed and didnt want to eat chicken i wouldnt, why should the fact that they are not housed be any different?
Rough sleepers have things really hard, just from what i have witnessed, i have seen rough sleepers punched, kicked, spat at, urinated on. I have heard people call them `scum` and be disparaging on a regular occurrence. I have had 4 people in the past 5 years pull me to one side when sat next to a rough sleeper and tell me `why are you helping them?? they are all scum and should be rounded up, put in a concentration camp and gassed`. I have seen the results of one man going round Southend and giving the rough sleepers poisoned bottles of water, i have hugged guys who burst in tears after i shook their hand (this has happened twice after a rough sleeper was asked to leave a well known charity shop as he `was a little bit smelly`) I have seen shopkeepers follow rough sleepers around spraying air freshener after them. It is horrible and dehumanising being a rough sleeper at times. These are just the situations i have witnessed, rough sleepers have told me about times they have been raped and one of them was kidnapped and human trafficked last year. It is awful and that is why i treat people who say that people choose to live on the street with cynicism. I have only known 4 or 5 people who have chosen to live on the street, others would like to find out a way out if possible. This isn’t an easy journey and it is made harder with bureaucracy and landlords not wanting to take DSS or making the initial cost of a deposit/guarantor too high which prices rough sleepers out.
Two statements that will always stick with me are as follows. `I remember you (street pastors), you used to bring me food, drinks and sleeping bags two years ago, but more than that you spent time with me and made me realise i was worth something. You cared for me and so i started to care for myself and now i am housed, i have a job and a relationship`. Another statement `Are you the guy who started Suspended Coffees in Southend?` I said yes. ` Thank you (kissing both my cheeks) i have a suspended coffee every day and it is the 10 or 15 minutes i most look forward to everyday as it is the 10/15 minutes that i get my dignity back`. Both of these examples show what a low sense of self worth rough sleepers have and this is because of what i have said above. Authorities try to impose their will on them, society is horrible towards them and that is without them having to deal with their own issues around relational breakdowns, addiction, mental health etc. Time is the most precious thing we have – we spend our day rushing around from one thing to another and so to spend 5 or 10 minutes out of that taking the time to sit down next to a rough sleeper and have a conversation meaning we will be late for the next thing is such a powerful thing to do as we are showing our fellow human being that they are worth being late for, that they matter and that we understand that things are tough but that hey we are there right next to them and that we care.
We can all help, just by treating rough sleepers as humans, listening to what their needs are and trying to help them to achieve their hopes rather than imposing our own views on to them.