It seems that in the time during the months of November and December, people in the UK suddenly have their eyes miraculously opened to the man begging outside the train station or on the local high street, and have empathy, maybe even a desire to try and meet the needs of the homeless community in their local area. Youth groups and charities meet together for a mass handing out of sausage rolls and cups of tea and people are relentlessly packing ‘goodie bags’ to give out to people they see on the streets. Although this willingness to help is encouraging, homelessness is still a prevalent problem in all seasons, not just at Christmas. Steve Fletcher from the London-based, Christian homeless charity “Above Us Only Sky?” talks about his experiences of nine years working with people on the streets and how we can help practically in our own communities.
I think there’s definitely a stigma of addiction and alcoholism surrounding the homeless; would you say that with a lot of the homeless people that you meet, that kind of thing is the cause of their homelessness?
No, not necessarily, there’s such a broad range of things. Addiction seems to be a symptom of being homeless rather than the cause. If you’re on the streets for a while you start drinking or take drugs to relieve the pain. In my opinion, mental health is one of the biggest problems with people on the streets; simple things like Asperger’s and people who find it very hard to communicate properly and pay bills and run a house; all those little things. Then you’ve got family breakdowns where someone’s been kicked out of their home. Another big cause is debt; people can’t pay the bills, their job doesn’t pay enough, and then addiction. The foreign population is slightly different; a lot of people come to England for a better life and a better job and they’re in poverty until they do get a job to rent a house, or if their job falls through.
Many people would say that although they feel sorry for the homeless they see on the streets, they are scared to approach them because of those negative stereotypes surrounding the homeless, would you say that fear is valid?
In nine years I have never been hurt or injured and I don’t know anyone who has been either. Obviously we have to be very careful when we approach people especially if they’re sleeping, intoxicated or have a mental health issue. But generally if you give someone love, respect and some of your time, most people are lovely. People who are afraid of the homeless are people who don’t really know or haven’t been around anyone who is homeless. You’re always going to be fearful of something you don’t really know about. They’re just you or me in a different circumstance.
There’s been a lot of news coverage about barbers and hairdressers going around London offering haircuts to the homeless and there have been a lot of people who go out individually, specifically to give food to people, but then they never see them again after that. It’s just a one time experience. Do you think that’s useful in making a lasting impact?
I think sometimes, it’s easier to say “here’s a sandwich” and just walk away. It’s much more difficult to say “Hi my name’s Steve, how are you?” and have a conversation and listen. Although people are thankful for it, a lot of the time people don’t just want food – they don’t want to feel invisible. They’re not invisible; most of them have had normal lives. There was a story about 3 years ago where a guy came down who was very smart, he had nice shoes and I said “Oh have you come to help?” and he said “No I’m with this lot [the homeless group].” Six months prior to that he was a practising GP; his wife and brother died so he lost the plot and gambled £4,000. He got struck off from the medical register and within six months he ended up homeless. I think people should have a political will to change people’s lives, to end all homelessness, full stop. But in the absence of anything like that, if you can help with a skill or anything small it’s extremely helpful and needed as well. I think anyone who has a haircut feels generally quite good afterwards, it makes you feel better; and that’s the same for a homeless person as it is for someone who’s a millionaire.
To find out more about ‘Above Us Only Sky’ visit http://www.aboveusonlysky.org.uk