When you are distant from homelessness, i.e. your only experience of ‘homeless’ people are the people you walk past from time to time with a Staffordshire Terrier and a begging bowl, it’s easy to feel pity and think it is no fault or choice of their own to be there.The reality of why people are on the streets, whether they live there or not, is more complex than most people imagine.
A friend of mine has been living on the streets for many years, interspersed with occasional lodgings of various types. He’s not on drugs, has no alcohol problems, not into anything illegal and has money coming in that isn’t from benefits. He lives in a place where people regularly see him, and out of compassion and kindness they stop, chat, offer him things from food to clothes to coffee. So he has regular contact with people in the local community, shelter, warmth and freedom to move somewhere else, stay in a B&B if he chooses. Now when you consider the traditional alternative, a flat, an internet connection and a facebook account, it is likely to be a very lonely existence. Despite the hardships, when you compare the two in his case I can see the draw to staying on the streets. He’s not in a city, so the abuse he may receive from local yobs is rare. Even if the depths of winter, a couple of good sleeping bags and a sheltered spot will keep him warm.
For him, and many others, how he lives is a choice he has made not just a consequence of external factors. For others circumstances lead to an inability to deal with the responsibilities of living under one roof. At a recent gig a friend told me of her Grandfather who served in the trenches of world war 1. He couldn’t cope with normal life, and chose to live in a caravan at the end of the garden and still lived out of a backpack. I have met quite a few ex-military people who experienced the same thing. There’s a guy in a tent down the lane who lives his way because of this.
I met a woman in New York who ended up on the street because of the harsh way the city deals with people who can’t pay the bills. I don’t think it is quite like that in the UK, but sometimes people’s lives fall apart and that is what happens to them because they can’t deal with all the things they need to in order to remain ‘homed’.
I have had the pleasure of getting to know may ‘homeless’ people over the years. They are an interesting bunch and I really enjoy spending time with them. I don’t treat them as homeless people at all, I just treat them and love them as people who just live in a different way to me.
Anyone who has seen the series ‘Rev’ with Tom Hollander will remember the black homeless guy who is constantly making up stories to get some cash from the vicar. Of course, he doesn’t always remember the last story told, so one week asks for money to see his Aunt in Hospital in London not realising that the previous week he asked for money to go to her funeral. Amusing as this is, this kind of tell-a-story to get something attitude is very common. Lying is simply a method of survival, of getting something they want through pulling the heartstrings of others.
Of course many people appear on out high-streets as ‘homeless’ or ‘beggars’ because they have an addiction to drugs or alcohol they need to serve, and this provides one way of funding it. So it is often a dilemma whether to give or not, because by giving out of kindness it may only be serving to perpetuate a habit rather than help address it.
Furthermore, the abundance of charitable organisations from food banks to soup runs whilst addressing a real short term need, may only serve to perpetuate the problem. When I first heard John Bird (founder of The Big Issue) say this, the penny dropped. Whilst I loved every minute of the years I served in a homeless charity, I soon realised that out of the hundred or so people I served each week, there were virtually no people living on the streets who actually came. Most came for a free meal, and highlighted later that day when I bumped into 4 of them in Tesco buying alcohol.
I used to bump into a lady called Lizzie who was living on the streets. Going into Norwich station one day for a trip to London I talked to her and found out she liked Chocolate croissants. Later that evening when I came back I saw her looking through the bins I went back and bought some croissants. When I gave them to her, despite being drunk, what touched her more than anything was that I remembered who she was and what she liked.
What this highlighted was that people’s real needs often go way beyond the short term things they are asking for. Dignity, respect, friendship, community are in many ways some of the fundamental things people are seeking, and not just a handout.
In some ways, friendship is one of the easiest and most difficult to offer. Easy, because learning someone’s name and chatting to them is quite easy, even though many people find even this step a bit scarey. What about when it comes to say, putting them up in a spare room you may have ? It’s a risky step. Let’s face it, putting someone up that you know even really well may bring to the surface all sorts of difficulties that you will have to then address!
The challenge I have found in having done this is really helping people out of the house so they are no longer dependent on yet another form of charity. After all, creating yet another dependency like this is not helpful to either side. This is the testing part, because in helping someone in this way you’re linked to their lives which may add many complications to your own life. It may reveal your own issues, as well as the other persons!
This is where clear boundaries are so important. Offering open ended help is a bad move and this is often where I discovered the difficulty I have in offering tough love. My first example was when a lent a TV and video player to a heroin-addicted couple who had just got a flat. When it came to getting it back the items were both in the ‘menders’. They had both been sold to fund their habit. On another occasion I put someone up for a requested couple of weeks. They were with me for four months! Laying down clear boundaries is so important.
Here’s another example. I was asked to look after some things for a couple of weeks. I realised in doing so I was also agreeing to regular visits, ‘can I borrow your shower’ type requests. That was fine as I knew the score, but not everyone does. For example, if a husband is at work, is it OK that a homeless man regularly visits to get some of his things and borrows the shower whilst the wife is at home? It’s important these things are closely considered because innocently out of kindness offering to look after someone’s stuff may lead to complications later.
I’ve a good friend who lives in a van on the lane near my house. He’s got dreadlocks, tattoos, a massive dog and an interesting lifestyle. Yet he is one of the kindest, good-hearted, most authentic people I know and it is a blessing to know him, have him over for dinner and share life with him. I think most people keep their distance because of his looks and lifestyle, but he has been so blessed by some many locals who have taken the trouble to get to know him. He has also blessed so many people.
At the end of the day, people are people. They all have the same basic needs, want to love and be loved, have issues they may or may not want to address, but by treating each person with dignity and respect you may discover that you have been a part in changing someone’s lives.
Back to that heroin couple. They disappeared. Years later a woman come up to me and asked ‘You don’t remember me do you?’ I didn’t, then I looked closely and saw who she was. Linda was her name. ‘I just came in to say thank you for all that you did, it changed my life’. When I first saw her years before she was just like a heroin addict you would imagine. Gaunt, skinny, ill looking. Now she was shining, having a good ‘normal’ life and thriving as a person. Whilst rarely do you get to know the outcome of kindness you have shown in the past, when you get a glimpse of the difference it has made it is a wonderful encouragement to persevere.