Homelessness has recently become a real issue in my local community in Finsbury Park in north London. Despite the virtual absence of rough sleeping a few years ago, there are now numerous, perhaps dozens of people sleeping outdoors down alleyways, under railway bridges and in camping tents in the park, all within a short walk from where I live.
Concerned about this, as part of my involvement in a local charity, I chaired a community meeting where we discussed the causes of this unfortunate situation and what could be done to improve it.
We were told by social workers and the police who attended the meeting that steps were being taken to find accommodation for the rough sleepers, but that in the mean time, we were not to pay any attention or give any money to them, as the money would only be used to finance their drug addictions.
For one attendee of the meeting, this suggestion was ill-advised. A well-dressed, highly articulate man – I presumed he was a doctor, or a lawyer – stood up and gave a rousing speech in which he protested that while indeed some had their drugs usage to blame for their homelessness, many rough sleepers arrived at their situation through no fault of their own – for many it was down to really tragic circumstances. If you were to sit down with them and hear their story, you’d discover that they were more than deserving of a few spare coins.
The man, much to the annoyance of the stony-faced social workers, had by this point won over hearts and minds in the room. He then revealed that up until recently he had in fact been homeless himself, but that he had now been able to find accommodation, had finally started receiving benefits and was beginning to put his life back together.
After a bit of persuasion we were able to co-opt him to the board of our local charity, and he is now working hard helping us with our mission to improve lives in our community.
I mention this perhaps not exceedingly exciting story, because to me it represented a turning point in the way I looked at homelessness in my local area. If there were someone as bright and talented as this guy (dare I say, as an Oxford student, that I felt rather intellectually intimidated by him?), then just think how many more people there are of his ilk: gifted, energetic people whose talents could take them so far if only they had been given a decent start in life.
I really am now prepared to sit down and talk to a rough sleeper, and do what I can to give them hope that they have a future beyond pleading for money in the street.
My local area, however, is by no means exceptional. Government estimates suggest that in the past five years, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets each night has doubled from two thousand in 2011 to four thousand in 2016. And, if the expertise of charities like Crisis is to be believed, these figures are only set to rise even further in the years to come.
But it’s easy to concentrate only on rough sleeping. This is the visible side of homelessness. But looking at this alone would be to neglect the fact that rough sleeping numbers are small in comparison to – again according to government statistics – the staggering figure that 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation (hostels, refuges, B&Bs and hotels).
Crisis suggests that two thirds of a million people are living in overcrowded accommodation – i.e. in houses that were designed to accommodate only a fraction of the number of people who currently live in them.
Just in case you don’t think you’re lucky to be where you are right now, perhaps these figures will be a sobering reminder that you really are much more than lucky.
I don’t want to add another opinion to the debate on how to tackle homelessness in our country. There are already so many voices out there, most of which recognise the severity of the situation. But I do want to bring to the fore the humanity of the situation and challenge some peoples’ stereotypical, and incorrect, view of the homeless.