Homeless, Cold and Hungry - It Could Be You!
How many of you have been walking through a town underpass, loaded down with carrier bags full of Christmas purchases and passed a young man, huddled against a wall, with a grubby blanket around his shoulders, looking forlorn and unloved, with a pot for collecting small change from kind-hearted passers by? Can you honestly say that you have walked past them without a conscience, without wondering where they sleep at night, how they manage to keep warm, when they had their last decent meal or what Christmas Day will be like for them?
Before I delve further into this subject, I would like to stress that homeless people are just like you and I. They have hearts, souls and feelings. The only difference is that they don’t have a roof over their heads. A bit like the difference between a slug and a snail, although I am by no means comparing the homeless with slimy creatures that are best served with garlic butter.
I have heard many self-righteous people slate the homeless, with a condescension that is indicative of a society that doesn’t understand and doesn’t care. These are the people who haven’t been forced to run away from an abusive home environment, who haven’t suffered from domestic violence or been told to leave by an uncaring parent, who haven’t suffered from marriage break-ups or insurmountable financial problems and so on.
Some people view the homeless as a totally different breed of person, as tramps whose homelessness has been self-induced, either through drug or alcohol abuse, or through downright laziness and consequent unemployment.
In some cases, this may be accurate and in some cases, the people you see begging on the streets may not be genuinely homeless. However, in many other cases, this is absolutely not true, particularly when some of these people have been forced into this situation through no fault of their own. It is not fair that they should all be branded with the same iron.
There, but for more fortunate circumstances, go all of us.
I remember, many years ago, wandering through town with my eldest son as he clutched the last two pence of his pocket money. He suddenly released his hand from mine, turned around and ran across to the opposite side of the precinct, where a young man sat against a shop doorway, hugging his knees. Beside him was a small cardboard sign that said “Homeless and Hungry”. My son handed him his last two pence and ran back over to me, saying, “I feel so sorry for that poor man.”
That memory will stay with me forever and, actually, turned out to be almost prophetic in a strange sort of way. Two and a half years ago, my eldest son went through a particularly rebellious period, which culminated in his leaving home.
He was a few days short of his sixteenth birthday and was still a student. Had it not been for the intervention of the Social Services, he could well have been homeless, without our knowledge. He was placed in sheltered accommodation and, since that time, has moved about seven times from one centre to another.
A couple of weeks ago, he was ousted out of his accommodation because, unbeknownst to him, his housing benefit had stopped three months previously and the Social Security had not sent him any letter of notification telling him that he would have to re-apply. His benefit was paid directly to the warden of the sheltered complex, so he had not idea that the rent had not been paid until he was asked to leave.
He has since been relying on the goodwill of close friends and family, but he officially has “no fixed abode”, since moving back to our house permanently is not an option.
My son has only recently completed a college course and is relying on menially paid jobs here and there, plus occasional help from my partner and I, to get him through until he finds an apprenticeship with a motor company. However, the money that he earns doesn’t even come close to being enough to pay rent on his own flat.
Other people are not so lucky and the above story demonstrates how easy it is to find yourself without a home.
Begging is a horrible word and yet it is not as abhorrent as stealing. Begging, by a genuinely homeless citizen, is not dishonest. Stealing is. A homeless man is not stealing from the public, because they have the option of whether or not to give him money. A thief fraudulently obtains goods or money and the people from whom he is stealing are not given the option.
The only time that I would consider begging as dishonest, is when an allegedly homeless person is not actually homeless at all, but is trying to obtain extra “free” money to finance a habit, such as smoking, drinking or drugs.
I remember one young girl, whom I used to pass on a regular basis whilst walking through town. She was always sat in the same spot, at the end of a subway that ran beneath one of the main roads. She was very clean and smart looking, with her fair hair always tied back neatly in a ponytail. She certainly didn’t appear undernourished but, yes, I did feel immensely sorry for her.
Then, one evening, as I was perusing the local paper, I noticed a feature about the problem of homelessness in streets in Swindon. The article included a couple of profiles on people who had been interviewed whilst they sat begging. Imagine my surprise, when they described the predicament of one, young girl who always sat in the same spot of the subway that I described above. The girl in question was the one whom I had seen many times and to whom I had also given my small change on a number of occasions.
The girl “wished her identity to remain anonymous for fear that her benefits would be stopped.” That’s right. Her benefits. This girl was not homeless at all. She shared a nice little flat with her boyfriend and both of them lived off of Social Security benefits. She told the reporter that she needed to beg in order to have enough money to buy cigarettes and drugs!!!! Can you believe it?
She said that on a good day, she could earn up to £80. Add that to the money that she was receiving in benefits and her “income” was more than mine!!!
Oddly enough, I never saw her again after that article was printed. I think that the fact that the easily identifiable.
This, I hope, is a more isolated case, but it does make me cross to think that the reason that the homeless have such a bad name and don’t attract the compassion that they deserve, is because of scroungers like the girl mentioned above, together with drug addicts, alcoholics and the downright greedy.
Homeless people will often find themselves in a vicious circle of unemployment and lack of permanent accommodation. Without the prestige of a home, it can be almost impossible to find, or to be offered, a job. It can also be difficult to claim unemployment benefits. Consequently, without a job and without money, how on earth can these people afford to pay for a home?
Which brings us on to Buskers. Now, some of these may be homeless, some may not. However, one thing is clear. These people are earning a decent living, the same as the rest of us. The only difference is that they are doing it in a more unconventional way. So, good luck to them and congratulations on having the courage to stand on a street corner, in all weathers and play, what can often be, the most delightful music.
Lack of affordable housing and a shortage of properties can price decent, law-abiding people out of homes. Even when these people do have relatives or friends able to accommodate them for a time, this is generally not for an indefinite period and sometimes a person or family is asked to leave after having outstayed their welcome.
I know, because I’ve been there. Twice.
Many years ago as a 19 year old in Stockholm, Sweden, the Czechoslovakian father of the family for whom I worked sexually harassed me. I packed my belongings and left instantly, despite his pleas to persuade me to stay. Of course he wanted me to stay. His wife was in hospital giving birth to their second child, so how on earth was he going to explain to her the circumstances surrounding my departure?
I trudged two miles to a friend’s, with all my worldly goods tightly packed into two suitcases. She was an Au Pair for a well-known Swedish Politician’s family and had her own room in their house, so there was no guarantee that I would be allowed to stay.
I was lucky, however and was able to share her room for a short while, before I moved on yet again to another friend’s room, again an Au Pair. After a week, I had to move out, this time with absolutely no-where to go.
I was in turmoil. I immediately took a few days’ leave to try and find myself another flat, but to no avail. Everywhere I found was either too expensive, too far out of town or else had certain other criteria attached, which I didn’t fulfil.
One of the woman with whom I worked, took pity on me and allowed me to stay with her for two weeks. During that time, the boss of the store where I worked told me that one of our customers had a one-roomed flat available.
This customer had bought the flat for her son, who was working abroad for a few years. As far as I was concerned, I had at least two years before I had to organise another place for myself. However, the first six months was barely up, when I was politely informed by this woman that her son was returning home unexpectedly early. The following week to be precise.
The day before the “eviction” arrived and still I had nowhere to live.
To cut a long story short, I too was exceptionally lucky and managed to find another flat, way out of town, the same day, but this just demonstrates how homelessness can happen to anyone at any time.
So, before you turn a blind eye to the young man huddled in a shop doorway, just remember. It could be your son or your daughter there; it could be one of your friends or relatives.
It could even be you.
www.shelter.org.uk - Shelter is a national organisation working to find solutions and improve the lives of homeless people. Shelterline 24 hour helpline: 0808 800 4444 (freephone)
www.homelesspages.org.uk - Advice, books, action groups, codes of practice, articles, information packs.