Thursday, 28 January 2016

Helping the Homeless - questions in need of answers

In the 1990s American comedienne Rita Rudner brought the house down when she revealed that every time a wino asked her; 'Do you have any spare change?' she replied 'I don't know. I haven't lived my life yet!'

Now it seems an increasingly hollow joke. On this side of the pond the dignified gentleman tramp of my childhood sporting the tired cords with string tied around his boot tops who never bothered anyone and lived in a tent on a grassy island where two motorways converged has been replaced by ever growing numbers of homeless of all ages, nationalities and hues in all manner of doorways and alleys, some making an attempt to earn their living with a painting, a sand dog or the playing of a musical instrument, many not.

No sooner do you give some change to a homeless person in Brighton than you encounter another one just a few yards along the street. Donor fatigue sets in fast. More and more locals skip their morning or evening constitutional and take the bus, stricken by moral paralysis as to how to react. I myself have been through many personal policies - only donate to those who attempt to earn a living, only donate to those with a dog, keep a pocket of 20p pieces and give one to each. Don't subsidise anyone's obvious drink or drug habit (if they want to kill themselves I don't want to be an accessory). Give them a sandwich rather than money. You name it, I've given it a go, but somehow have never arrived at a satisfactory personal policy.

A proliferation of Big Issue sellers have appeared who get shirty if you try to buy their 'last' Big Issue but still want the money and are clearly using the magazine not as intended, to help them get back on their feet, but as a begging tool.

Everyone has noticed how much worse the problem has become in the last few years, though there are a few mitigating circumstances in Brighton. A number of homeless were apparently given one-way tickets here to clear them out of the way for the 2012 London Olympics and have never gone back, or have come of their own accord believing (or having been told) that homeless services are better here. Others have (according to my GP who also treats the homeless) taken the view 'If I'm going to be homeless, I may as well be homeless by the sea' evidently not considering that a seaside area may be subject to more regular storms and high winds than inland, particularly out of season.

Earlier this month three homeless people died in the same week. A makeshift shrine to them soon appeared at the foot of the clock tower. The Big Issue seller outside Waitrose died. Gareth. I had assumed he was an old man with his greying hair and beard. Shockingly I read a tribute on the adjacent wall which (if accurate) showed him to be a mere 6 months older than me!
It is rumoured that 50 homeless individuals have died in the city in the last three years, though it is hard to pin down the facts, let alone how many deaths were a direct result of 'homelessness' (ie exposure) or other factors such as drug overdose, suicide, accident or misadventure.

One homeless advocate I met reckoned '1000 homeless people sleep on Brighton's streets each night.' The Brighton Argus reported '79' only days later. There is no agreement on how many hostel spaces are available or not, though the Salvation Army said in a recent meeting I was present at that arrangements have been made to accommodate additional homeless in three local churches temporarily if the temperature should fall below zero for three nights consecutively. Sometimes the figures move around for a reason - ie higher figures mean homeless charities are more likely to get projects funded, but the whole shifting sand nature of the homeless problem makes it hard to get a proper handle on it. Emotive ads on London trains showing young women who apparently risk sleeping with strangers just to have a bed for the night are said to be an exaggeration. Very young women are seldom seen on the capital's streets late at night because they are the easiest to find and get off the streets.

St Mungo's have just taken over Brighton's council contract to help rough sleepers and are said to visit them all every night to reach out to them. Personally I have yet to see any teams checking on the homeless late at night, though the regular gentleman outside the co-op seems to have a duvet which regularly changes colour.

Several years ago it was widely advocated by a national homelessness charity that the homeless should be offered a 'hand up, not a hand out' and we should all give our money to the charities who help the homeless, not the homeless themselves as that just kept them on the streets and discouraged them from seeking help. The charity has gone quiet since then but two local PSCO's echoed this sentiment the other week. 'It's tragic, but the last thing you want to do is give them money or blankets - you're just keeping them on the street. You're not doing them any favours. We see them day in day out. We know.'

Conversely, even if there were enough affordable homes to go round for those with day jobs (73% of the under 35s are now priced out of the housing market), let alone the homeless, many homeless are high dependency individuals with serious addiction and mental health issues who need a high level of support and treatment. Put them in their own flat and they often can't cope with the responsibility as has been proven in many such initiatives around the country. A supported hostel or halfway house (preferably one which welcomes pets) is the real first base need for most before working towards long-term independent living.

The other danger is that if (by some miracle) the homeless are given free housing in one area, it encourages an influx to that area, or for those one or two steps away from the streets, (in a short-term AST let room in an HMO for example) to intentionally render themselves homeless to join them if there is little or no prospect of securing long-term housing any other way. In Brighton rents are spiralling out of control to the extent that working class families were recently advised by the council to seek homes outside of Brighton. This is not just about shortage of homes though, but the fact that so many homes which are built in the area are immediately snapped up as second homes, holiday homes or investment buys and in an open market, there is no legal means for our council to ring-fence new developments for locals in housing need, nor obligation to ensure they are 'affordable' in the true sense of the word.

But to get back to the homeless, there are certain groups whom the military should be forced to demonstrate a Duty of Care towards - ie all the ex-servicemen who have been mentally of physically damaged as a result of doing their duty for their country. Moreover the military have many former army facilities which they could easily utilise to provide health services, training and housing for ex servicemen.

I myself lived in an HMO (shared house) until the age of 36 and was once photographed in the Daily Mail letters column holding a tongue-in-cheek 'Middle Class Homeless, Please Help' sign to demonstrate my point regarding the hopelessness of many of my generation in getting onto the housing ladder. Poor taste perhaps, but after 12 years of no movement on my local council housing list, I felt quite entitled at the time. Little did I know how much worse things would become in a few short years, albeit happily in my own case I managed to secure a Park Home (static caravan) where I lived very contentedly until moving in with my now-partner.

However housing remains a topic close to my heart and I really want to understand every aspect of it, but preferably without emotion getting in the way of how to help on a practical and meaningful level. It is all very well to be a bleeding heart liberal or do-gooder and these people do do good - up to a point. But is this the most effective way to help rather than trying to understand the full picture and all the strands that contribute and all the potential knock-on effects? On the contrary, I think we need to have our eyes wide open in dealing with this crisis. For example our country is now considering admitting 3000 apparently homeless and rootless youngsters from eastern Europe - but are they? Many are said to be young adults masquerading as children to get in or being used as 'trojan horses' by their families so that once they are allowed to stay in Britain their entire families will be able obtain leave to join them.

On a final note I find the psychology of homelessness fascinating. Someone sits in the street, often next to the trash, and decides they are worth nothing. That is the energy vibe they then project to the world. That is the mirror vibe they attract. Agreement with their own opinion of themselves as worthless and therefore public avoidance. Either that or pity. Probably most people have been tempted at their lowest ebb to give up on the daily struggle and sink into the gutter, but it is certainly a bad choice/strategy for anyone who wants to change their luck. The further you sink in life, the further up you have to reach to claw your way back out of the abyss - not easy if there is no self-worth or self-respect to propel an individual back in an upwards direction. I have come to the conclusion that recovery from any calamity in life starts with the decision: 'I will not let ____ ruin my life.'  Which may not solve the nation's housing crisis, but can solve many others if donkey-strength stubbornness ensues.


Nota Bene said...

I think Brighton has always 'attracted' the homeless...I remember a man who used to beg near my office in Clerkenwell suddenly appearing in Brighton...he wasn't stalking me! But I agree there now seem more than ever in the's shocking how quickly sleeping rough ages someone. My personal philosophy has been to donate to charity rather than give to a beggar...I'm hoping the money gets used more effectively.

Wisewebwoman said...

Donating to charity can be a high risk game, very few use the funds adequately, often only 10% or less - fat cat salaries and marketing and admin gobbling the rest.
I give what I can. Don't judge them. Talk to them. Ask them what they need and often it's a meal which I purchase for them or go back with a scarf or towel. Engaging is far more valuable, Drugs are often the blanket to get through another day. I can't bear even pondering some of the stories I've heard. Many of us are just one paycheck/handout away from disaster in our own lives.
I agree Laura, it's complex.