The next point is a difficult one that people might disagree with strongly but I think is really important. It’s to do with the status of homeless people and the way that sometimes acts of charity can reinforce their sense of hopelessness and otherness. Whatever a person’s individual reasons for being on the street, you can be sure that it has been the final act in a series of problems in their life. Those problems will probably mean that they have had a great deal of contact with government services by that point, be it the NHS, prisons, the care system, social services or whatever. They will have a sense of being out of control of their destiny and, though I have never ever met a person who actively wants to live on the streets, I have met many (myself included) who passively accept the situation because it offers the path of least resistance (please in future drop all reference to rough sleeping being a lifestyle choice because it’s total and utter BS). Even if the person has had no part to play in becoming homeless and is entirely blameless, the fact of the matter is this: that it is only through an active engagement on their own part with homeless services, and an acceptance that their future lies in them taking ownership of the fact that life will not simply get better in time but will only get better when they take steps to make it better, that their lives will improve. Many rough sleepers have suffered psychological, physical and sexual abuse in their lifetimes that has led them to feel apart from others and so there is some sense of consolation in isolating themselves on the street along with others whom they feel “understand” their situation. The system of soup runs plays along with and reinforces this sense of otherness and inferiority. They play up to the sentiment of there is nothing worse in the world than having to sleep rough, and over time most people start to believe it and that they are somehow a class apart.
For example, as people who read my tweets regularly know, any money I get given by members of the public I donate to charity. I constantly have to respond to outcry from other homeless people (I’m open about the fact I donate the money to charity) and from other people online who say my situation is dire and I should put the money towards something I need. No. They are absolutely and unequivocally wrong. I am the same as everyone else. I am an equal member of society. If I start to think that I truly am part of a hopelessly downtrodden underclass, who knows what else I might start to think about myself. I have to maintain a little hope. I want to access services with the sense that they are public services that I am entitled to use just like any other, in the same way I feel perfectly entitled to sit in a public park or borrow a book from a library, because this gives me ownership. But if the services I access are run in such a way that I am made to feel I can only be grateful and am unable to complain or have any input into how they operate (and right now rough sleepers are unhappy with how the soup runs operate), it reinforces my sense of lack of control over the situation. I do not want to start thinking that I am so far beneath other people that it is okay to rely on them indefinitely for my everyday needs. I want to see light at the end of the tunnel. Acts of charity that are open-ended do not restore people’s sense of hope. They reinforce their sense of otherness. Charity and handouts should be about saying right now you need a helping hand to get you back up so that you can move on with your life because at times we all need help like that. The moving on with life part is essential. It’s about restoration. Most soup runs do not actively engage people with this crucial aspect (though it can be done).
This point has become ever more important to me during my time on the street because everyday I see brought low the dignity and confidence of men and women whom I believe are perfectly capable, with the right support, of leading full and active lives but who don’t believe themselves capable because no-one else is telling them it’s true. It’s very upsetting to witness.
[And when we have a situation where some organisers of the soup runs are actively advising rough sleepers not to cooperate with services instead of advising them how best to navigate them, then some homeless are threatened with an even worse outcome to the above.]