Monday 15 January 2018

Opinion: By the measure of homelessness in the UK, we are a poor nation

Our streets of people in need
Daily, I find myself wondering what kind of society I am in, what has broken in our society and communities to see such poverty, destitution and hopelessness amongst us?
There is nothing first world on our streets, despite being one of the largest economies in the world, with all sorts of prospects for the United Kingdom, we cannot judge our progress on the prosperity of the rich getting richer, companies declaring vast profits, the stock exchange hitting new records and anyone else with the opportunity and good fortune laughing all the way to the bank.
As a consultant, I work around the UK, literally living in hotels and walking the streets therein. Living in Manchester, then working or temporarily staying in Edinburgh, Norwich, Great Yarmouth and now Reading, I cannot ignore the obvious.
I see hungry people
I see hungry people, I see homeless people, I see people approaching strangers begging for some spare change for a meal or to get a place to lay their heads for the night. Then some billboards tell me not to give money to street beggars because the said charities are there to help them back to a different life.
I am pained by my own helplessness, I cannot think of what I can really do to help anyone who has been caught in this situation apart from offer a handout. If I stopped to listen to their stories, it is very likely their story will be no different from mine.
Why? I was self-employed and independent, then I fell ill with a sickness and disease that could easily have killed me off, but thankfully I am still here. As I took on my treatment, I had no money coming in, I used up all my savings, I could not pay the mortgage and because of my seemingly independent life, I did not know I was entitled to any welfare.
A precipitous decline
I soon found out about my entitlements six months after I fell ill, my creditors were very understanding, in fact, they probably had more faith in my recovery than I did, they had a good idea of what I earned before and my possible earning potential if I did recover. Yet, there were days I went hungry, my eyes almost popping out in the agonising pain of cancer, but for the succour and friendship of neighbours and friends, I could have despaired and expired.
I still had a roof over my head for another 30 months after my cancer diagnosis, but I could not sustain my situation, things were not looking as rosy as I had hope that I decided to sell up. The day before I moved out of my apartment of 126 months, I did not know where I would spend the next night, and then a free offer to occupy a vacated house come up which I occupied for two months.
After that, a young family put me up in their apartment caring for me for another 6 weeks before I decided to return to the UK after 12 and a half years in the Netherlands, with nothing but the hope that things will turn around, my cousin putting me up in a room as I returned.
As things looked up
Within 6 days of arrival, I had a job to travel around Europe for the next six months, however, some internal issues in the company meant the opportunity only lasted 5 weeks, it was another few months before I got a job in Wales where I was living out of hotels for the next 6 months.
Being in and out of work with no permanent residence could have taken its toll, I had many brushes on the brink of homelessness only to have people give me a place to recoup, reassess, rejig and reapply myself to getting back into useful employment and independence.
None of this would have been possible without a helping hand and there were many for which I am full of gratitude and appreciation that the best of humanity is still out there overflowing with the milk of kindness to help and to redeem.
Where is the help for all?
However, not everyone has that resource, not everyone has an angel, the angels to me were people like you and me. Many are homeless because of so many reasons too many to enumerate, from illness to unemployment, broken homes, divorce, a death in the family and even maybe substance abuse.
It is here that we must ask ourselves, what encourages substance abuse and is that not a symptom of some other underlying issue? I cannot sanctimoniously pontificate on these issues as if in my supposed saintliness I am beyond reproach, neither am I ready to accept as default that all beggars are beggars by choice, any money given them goes on drink and drugs or that they know where to get help and never use it.
I knew where to get help, as articulate and well-dressed as I was, I was both humiliated and turned away with the undertone of how dare I visit the homeless charity seeking help. I submit that if the charities were really doing their charitable duties, there would probably be fewer homeless people on our streets. I am doubtful they are doing anything that would encourage me to donate to the charities when I can open my hand to a person begging in front of me.
They are human beings first
It is a cancer within our midst that we have that many homeless people around us and from my experience, the very likelihood why the homeless would not visit homeless charities is because first, they are not treated as human beings, they are not treated with respect, they are looked down on as the dregs of society that there is nothing in place as the kind of helping hands I had to give me the opportunity and space to come out of the quagmire I was in.
Nobody wants to return to a workhouse environment redolent of the Victorian times and these places that portend to tackle homelessness must be more welcoming than they appear to be.
I see instances when someone begging needs £16 to stay in a hostel, it is unlikely if they make the £16, they would immediately spend it on one night’s shelter when there is food to think about.
The pall of homelessness
It is not without consideration that I think of a man I loved, Chris was ejected from his home by his mother at the age of 15 because he was gay and though he made something of his life to the extent that his parents relied on him to bury them well, Chris died 21 years after that ejection and it cannot be unrelated to the homelessness he suffered as a teenager before someone helped him.
I could see signs of that experience in everything that Chris did because these things are markedly significant, yet, he was amazingly loving and wonderful company to be with. Whilst he rests, I still miss him, 36 was too young an age to die and he’s been gone over 8 years.
I walk to the gym in my shorts on typical winter days seeing people in the dead of the night still hungry, homeless, cold and anything uncomfortable, I do not see anything happening to help them, I have not amazing solutions and sadly, we seem to be at the peak of government indolence and societal heartlessness.
This cannot continue, our society is the poorer for the hungry and homeless that roam around us in the vaunted prosperity of this great land. No, we are not prosperous, we are poor.

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