It’s six o’clock in Southampton City Centre. Shop workers have clocked off for the day and are making their way home. Thousands of people file up the High Street with their hands in their pockets and heads facing the ground. Few notice the figure under the blanket in the doorway. Fewer give any coins.
The perennial problem of homelessness has no easy solution. There is a stigma surrounding those who work or live on the street that will not go away. Perhaps we just don’t know how we can help, or maybe there’s a fear of crime. Possibly we view their dilemna as self-inflicted; we assume the involvement of alcohol and drugs.
“There are people out there because they made the wrong decision.”
It was after a conversation with a friend of mine about The Big Issue that I started to really think about the subject of homelessness. Her argument was that selling The Big Issue in Southampton didn’t constitute a real job and it was a futile attempt at getting people off the streets and “back into society”, off drugs and alcohol. I disagreed. The Big Issue – and schemes affiliated with it, are designed to be part of a holistic approach to combat homelessness.
One of these schemes is the Salvation Army. You may have seen one of their charity shops on Portswood High Street. The money the Salvation Army receives comes from donors and items sold in their stores. It then goes into various charitable projects, one of which is the Homeless 2 Opportunity (H2O) day centre in Southampton.
Upon arriving at the day centre, I am introduced to Mike Martin, one of the staff who works at the centre. Mike studied a Social Work degree at Southampton University. Part of his placement was at this day centre – and it was this that got him involved in working with the homeless.
One of the projects Mike shows me is a bicycle repair shop they are setting up. Upon seeing a mountain of previously unused and seemingly unloved bicycles, I think to myself that they may have their work cut out. Mike tells me how repairing the bikes for someone else to use not only gives the users of the day centre some more skills for employment, but also brings revenue to the centre.
“The majority are people just like you and me”
The next person I talk to is Matthew Smith, manager of the H20 centre. I ask him why he got involved in helping the homeless. He tells me that he has always been a member of the Salvation Army and did a Business Studies degree. It was his extensive volunteering in helping the Salvation Army – from community work to volunteering in Rwanda – that made him realise that he didn’t want to have a normal desk job. The job was ideal for him because he not only got to utilise his degree but was also able to work on the frontline of philanthropy.
We talk about the negative stigma surrounding homeless people. He explains that before his job he too had preconceptions – and in some cases they are right, “there are people out there because they made the wrong decision and they admit it.
“The majority are just like you and me. At some point in their lives, something has gone wrong. A lot of the time it is relationship breakdown, depression setting in; they end up missing payments left, right and centre – a perpetual downward spiral.
“It’s a whole combination of things – and sometimes it’s not their fault… 99.9% of people won’t get to know the stories behind the homeless person. There’s always a story and some background to it”.
This knowledge can make the decision to cross the street that bit more difficult. Whilst Matthew doesn’t advocate sitting down and talking to every homeless person, he says you just need to keep in mind that though begging may come across a nuisance – especially when charitable action would threaten your ever-decreasing student loan – they are just trying to survive.
So what can we do to help volunteer? Matthew says there are a number of methods from helping them to make phone calls to making tea and coffee to just starting a conversation.
“Quite a lot of these people are socially excluded. People will just walk on by without talking to them. That has quite a big psychological impact”.
This led to my next question of what the motivations of volunteering are. “Giving time back is satisfying; it’s not all about self gratification. It’s about community and doing something for another human being”.
He also calls for perspective. Not having a home or anyone able to rely on would make life seem very dark indeed. It is organisations and volunteers that contribute their time to such causes that can give something to such people and give them some light in their lives again.
So next time you’re in town and you see someone homeless, you don’t need to necessarily feel uncomfortable. In many ways, they are one of us. If you can’t give them time by volunteering for organisations such as the Salvation Army or don’t want to give any change, just give them that gift of acknowledgement. By just ignoring a problem you won’t make it go away – but reaffirming their existence is a great start. So go ahead.