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Here in the UK, the issue of homelessness is on the rise. Since 2010, the amount of people sleeping rough has increased by 134%. Take that in for a second.
On any one night in the UK, as of data collected in Autumn 2016, 4,134 people are sleeping without a roof over their head. Given the regular increase in homeless people, and the fact that the majority (62% according to research by the charity Crisis) of single and childless homeless people are unregistered, (known as hidden homelessness), we can imagine that number has only grown at this point.
Unfortunately, most people tend to pass by an occupied sleeping bag without a second thought. I admit, while I've never treated a homeless person like vermin, which is sadly a regular occurance, I used to do my best to just look the other way. It made me feel uncomfortable, making eye contact with someone so down on their luck as I passed to go shopping or for coffee with a friend, like I was somehow insulting them by acknowledging the difference in our financial situations.
That all changed when someone very close to me almost faced losing their home. We'll call her Allie.
Allie was legally bankrupt, and as a result was facing the possibility of having nowhere safe to sleep. Thankfully Allie never ended up sleeping on the streets, but she did have to rely on a Food Bank (somewhere which gives people who can't afford food the basics to live on, from whatever goods have been donated to them) to survive, as well as whatever I could afford to help her out. It brought the issue very close to home, and since then I've made a point of giving to the homeless whenever I can, as well as picking up little bits and bobs for my local Food Bank so that I can help another Allie. If you can afford it, pick up a can of soup or some instant coffee next time you go shopping and drop it off at your local Food Bank. Every little helps.
That little tangent was just to say, that since all of that happened, I've actually made friends with people I meet that are sleeping rough, and they've made me a better person, with a deeper understanding of how important it is to eradicate the issue of homelessness completely.
Take Gary, for instance. I met Gary on a main shopping street in Southport UK because someone was shouting at him so loudly that I could hear it over the music blaring through my earphones. Now I'm really not a confrontational person, but seeing this man towering over Gary while he sat on the floor with his dog Dixon, hurling abuse at him as Gary said absolutely nothing back really made my blood boil. I stormed over, and defended Gary with admittedly, serious rage, until the man moved on. I then ran in to the coffee shop we were near and grabbed him a warm drink, sat down with him and had a good old gab to make sure he and his dog were okay.
It turns out that Gary had rescued Dixon years ago while he still had a home, and after losing it had made sure that any money he got went on keeping Dixon fed and comfortable. Dixon was healthy looking and wrapped in multiple blankets, while Gary sat on the cold floor and was suffering from a bad cold. He'd even made the effort to find a kindhearted vet who gave Dixon a monthly check-up for free. But because of his devotion to this dog, he couldn't get shelter for the night as no hostel allows animals, and he would rather keep his best friend than sleep safely at night. I honestly don't think I've ever met anyone with a gentler, sweeter heart than Gary, but because he was homeless, almost no one else knew what an incredible person he was, because no one takes the time to get to know people living on the streets.
There's a huge stigma around the homeless; they're dirty, they're violent, they're crazy, they smell bad, they're addicted to drugs and alcohol...but you know what, none of those things should be synonymous with rough sleeping. You can be all of those things and still have a roof over your head. But our society has taught us to believe these things, and unfortunately it can take a close to home experience to make you realise it's all just a big lie.
As well as having no home, no security, no money, these people have lost the ability to socialise normally. They have been ignored by passers by for so long that they're wary of kindness from a stranger. I once bought a sandwhich and coffee specifically for a man I knew was homeless but had never spoken to before, and when I gave it to him, he asked what he had to do for it, and was confused about why I was doing it.
We, as a society, forget that homeless people are just that — people. They deserve respect and compassion just as much as your best friend, your mum, your neighbour. It may feel scary, even unnatural, the first time you go up to a person sleeping rough, but try it — grab a couple of drinks, sit down next to them and just talk to them like the human beings you both are. I can tell you from personal experience that you'll both get something out of it...maybe even a new friend, like I gained when I took the time to talk to Gary. Gary told me that the way people look at him, and friends of his also sleeping rough, makes them feel less than human — disgusting, pest-like, and undeserving of respect. Does anyone deserve that on top of losing their home?
Another thing that plagues the homeless community is ill-health. 41% of homeless people have reported long-term physical ailments, compared to just 28% of the general public. 45% of rough sleepers are diagnosed with a mental health condition, with only 25% of the general population having been diagnosed.
On top of these staggering figures, 35% of the homeless population don't even get two meals a day, which in case you aren't scientifically minded, will make your body weaker and less able to fight infection, as well as less able to handle physical health conditions.
Sadly, 15% of homeless people with a physical health condition want help but do not receive it (16.5% for people with mental health problems). Not only this, but 7% of them have been denied access to a dentist or general practitioner.
More on health problems for homeless people here.
Yesterday I met Bella, a young woman sleeping rough after being kicked out of her home by her partner. Bella has septicemia, and a blood clot in her leg, but has been denied access to her local hospital unless her life is in immediate jeopardy. I know what you're thinking — blood poisoning could kill her, and so could that blood clot if it moves — but because it isn't immediate, she's not going to get any help.
My mum and I sat with Bella and chatted for a while over a cigarette, and found out that one of the safest local places for her to sleep was the public toilets — not ideal for someone who already has septicemia.
The thing is, though, Bella is only in the position she is in because of our government. There are myriad properties that are empty and for various reasons, unwanted. If these properties were simply opened up and given a water supply, Bella could stay in one of them temporarily until she gets back on her feet.
Fuck safety regulations, fuck protocol and policies, a roof over your head with four walls and a locking front door is all someone with nowhere to go would need. The reason this simple solution is not executed is because it produces no revenue for the government — and we all know where the priorities of a Conservative government lies.
If we the people do not stand up and show our country's leaders for what they truly are, nothing will be done. If we do not display for the world to see that the government is putting profit over people, they will never be shamed in to doing the right thing.
It's not up to a council's constituents to feed, shelter and clothe those in need — but until the people in charge evolve to join those of us with hearts, it's our responsibility as kind and compassionate human beings to help them, however we can. If you're worried that if you give them money it will be spent on drugs or alcohol (I mean, if I was homeless I'd definitely want to be so drunk I didn't care, but that's another story for another day...), then buy them bottled water, cereal bars, or blankets. If you can't help them financially, don't feel bad and assume there's nothing you can do — help them out socially, sit down and talk to them, be a friend.
It may sound corny, but when it comes to this particular issue, be the change you want to see in the world.
*All names have been changed for privacy reasons