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I take the same walk from the Civic Centre to the Bargate every weekend for work, and I never see less than four homeless people.
Considering that this is a 5-10 minute walk, my maths isn’t great but that very approximately works out as seeing one homeless person every two minutes within a very small radius. Maybe it’s because I’m from a fairly small seaside town, but I’ve never seen anything like it, and it seems to only get worse rather than better.
With the snowstorms hitting us in early March, I saw many homeless people attempting to sleep in the streets as temperatures went below zero. During the recent hot weather, I have seen many endure the sweltering heat without the luxury of being able to buy a bottle of water on a whim like we’re able to. These people are surviving at the mercy of human kindness, and whilst this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a lot more subjective and less stringent than laws. In other words, people are under no obligation to help the homeless. If people who do help them choose not to, where would they be then?
While extra provisions were put in place during these aforementioned extreme periods, it isn’t enough. Thse measures are constantly canceled out by simultaneous strict rules such as fining, arrests and refusing to let them stay in certain areas.
The fact of the matter is that not only should we do more, more needs to be done by organisations such as the Council. However, individuals and institutions alike don’t want to help the homeless due to the skewed and damaging perception of them that they’ve been brought up with.
For my own safety, I’ve always been taught never to talk to strangers, and if they are sitting on the street asking for change that’s surely a double no-no. All homeless folk are drug addicts, right? Surely, if they have nowhere to go, they must have a criminal past. If you hang around too long, it’s practically certain that they’ll stab you, steal from you or assault you. Are there some homeless people who fit these criteria? Of course. But we mustn’t confuse ‘some’ with ‘all’.
I remember when I was giving food to someone, an elderly gentleman approached me and told me just how ‘important’ it is to always give the homeless community food and never money, because they always spend it on drugs. Again, while the police have advised this, it is still based on a generalization: grouping millions of people into a very rigid set of character qualities.
Even if some in the homeless community do suffer from addiction, does that make them automatically ‘undeserving’ of help and compassion? Besides, if I had to sleep on the streets with nobody to turn to, I’d probably resort to substance abuse too. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you lose all your human rights. If that was the case, would any of us have any human rights left? We need to stop being so judgmental, because, underneath the superficial differences, we are all fundamentally human.
Equally, there are many people in the homeless community who go beyond these very rigid characterisations, and I know this first-hand. In fact, it was meeting this person that inspired me to write this article. The man I met was aware of his own mistakes in life, didn’t blame the world, but seemed determined to change things for the better.
Like me, he suffered from mental health issues, which really shows how homelessness can happen to anyone. I know first-hand just how destructive mental health issues can be. It could easily have been me in that position. It was his first time begging, and he wanted the money not for drink or drugs, but for clothes for a job interview. In the long term, he wanted to earn money to get back into education and become a support worker: to help people just like him.
He lived in a shelter for homeless people, so could be considered one of the lucky ones. Yet the conditions he lived in, as in many of these places, were awful and not enough to sustain a person. Many would argue that he should be ‘grateful’ for that, and he isn’t a ‘real homeless person’, but this is another misconception. Sometimes these places are so terrible that one feels safer in the streets.
The point of this rant? Just to think the best of people. Most importantly, we should count the homeless amongst these ‘people’, because that’s just who they are. They are no less important due to their living conditions. If anything, they should be our priority as we all work together to make things better. That is something that we should all assume.