Skip to main content

Homelessness - an event, not an imposed identity


“Where have the homeless moved to? Can you help us find them?” asks a woman on the phone. It’s a bad line and there is traffic noise in the background. “We are seeking out junkies, winos and vagrants.”  It occurs to me that perhaps she is being deliberately provocative by using such pejorative terms but no, after a few questions it is clear that she is sincere.
She is with a church group which has travelled into central London, moved by “the plight of the homeless”. Central London is overburdened with vast numbers of visiting soup runs, so I don’t offer directions but refer her to Housing Justice which does an excellent job working with faith groups to ensure their important contribution is coordinated and effective.

Then I muse over her language and what it tells me about how people who are homeless are perceived. I am influenced by @bullringbash who tweets in an illuminating way on homelessness issues, a man who by his own admission spent destructive years in the 1990s at the Bullring near Waterloo Station, London, one of the most notorious rough sleeping encampments.  He has strong feelings about the phrase ‘the homeless’; its dehumanising impact and the impression it gives of a homeless tribe. In a recent tweet he went further, commenting: “No such thing as homeless people, only people who are homeless.” 

This notion that the homeless can be defined and analysed in the way that we might an ethnic group is enhanced by research that seeks to establish an average age of death of a homeless person. The age currently favoured is 47 but has, at different times over the last five years, been announced as 40.2, 40.5, 42 and 44.


Delving into this research a little further it becomes evident that the problem is definitions of the homeless varies considerably, which is hardly surprising given that homelessness covers so many situations. The range can include not only rough sleepers, families in bed and breakfasts and hostel residents but squatters and even, in a piece of research surely straining the definition beyond breaking point, someone who has had to leave ‘a negative home environment’ to sofa-surf for as short a period as a week.
The public perception of the homeless, embraced with insouciant condescension by swathes of the media, seems to be of a badly dressed man with a beard, a sort of hipster with a grubby collar and poor dress sense. This is how The Daily Telegraph reported on Cristiano Ronaldo disguising himself as a homeless man, before showing off his football skills in the centre of Madrid: “Real Madrid star dons fake beard and fat suit before posing as a tramp.” And when on social media people describe themselves as looking homeless as they frequently do, they mean looking unkempt, a bit rough. 


The legitimate concern of @bullringbash is that the concept of ‘the homeless’ carries with it a stigma that can continue to blight a person’s life well after their homelessness experience should have dimmed to an uncomfortable memory.
Surely homelessness should be regarded as an event and not given the authority of an imposed identity? I share his concern about the implications of propagating this ultimately toxic view of the homeless as a homogenous group. There is something gratifyingly comforting about the concept of helping the homeless. I fear that it brings out the worst kind of paternalism in us. That sense of personal fallibility in the individual leads inexorably to the next conclusion; that the homeless, rather like the poor, will always be with us.
Recently walking through the West End, absorbed in my own thoughts, I found myself confronted by a man who claimed to remember me from the time when I was working with rough sleepers 30 years earlier. Looking up, I could immediately remember his name and even where he slept rough. I braced myself to hear a story of a fall from grace, an incident that had brought him back onto the street and, rather insensitively, I asked if he was back sleeping rough. He looked puzzled but then burst out laughing.

“No, no,” he exclaimed. “You got me the flat, then I got a job. I work in IT now and own my home.”  We talked briefly about when he slept on cardboard in a shop doorway. “Bad days,” he said, momentarily looking grim. Then he shook my hand and strode off towards Leicester Square tube station, not one of the ex-homeless, but someone for whom homelessness was a shocking, unpleasant aberration.     


With special thanks to @bullringbash

A version of this blog was publish in Inside Housing magazine, October 2015.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Homeless? Your failure to engage means you've only yourself to blame

In the last six months there have been five deaths of rough sleepers, all well known to the Thames Reach outreach workers seeking to help them build a life away from the street, each death a crushing blow. They include a Polish rough sleeper found dead on a dirty mattress along a canal tow-path. Another, a man in his early forties who discharged himself from hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia. Heroin dependency drove him back onto the street and his body was discovered at his regular begging pitch outside a south London train station. This cull of blighted lives; it can’t go on.
All five were long-term rough sleepers, or ‘entrenched’ as we call them nowadays. Entrench: ‘To construct a defensive position by digging a trench’, a dehumanizing word which subliminally implies that the person has elected to sleep rough, obdurately burrowing away in order to avoid the reality of the world around them. It meshes neatly with a suite of words or phrases that places responsibility…

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.
I was one of the outreach wo…

Ronnie wants a job. You had better believe it.

Ronnie sits slumped in his seat; impassive, listless and avoiding eye contact. In the chairs around the room the various professionals shift uncomfortably. This is the regular ward round at a rehabilitation unit for people detained under the Mental Health Act. As an alliance of organisations we are collectively seeking to support people to live a fulfilling life in the community and the first step is to help people to recover and stay well. 
Directed by the doctor chairing the review meeting we each introduce ourselves. Ronnie is clearly familiar with the roles of most of the people present. I’m preceded by the psychiatrist, senior nurse and the pharmacist. Then it’s my turn and I explain that Thames Reach supports people to manage their home and find work. Ronnie rapidly adjusts from being virtually supine to upright and alert. ‘Can I speak to you after – I want a job’. Regretful sympathy fills the room like an invisible mist as the group subliminally shares the view that a job is, wel…