Perhaps awful to admit, but if you had sent me an article about homelessness two weeks ago, chances are I wouldn’t have even opened it- it was, quite simply, something that had little relevance to me; I just didn’t care.
In fact, it went further than just being apathetic. I was a cynic.
It was during my time at University that I became actively sceptical of homeless people, as I got approached by them regularly during my time in Leeds. And, being the cynic that I was, I would never give them money. Instead, I would start thinking about where my money would actually be going if I was to succumb, usually reverting to the idea of drugs; I would then internally congratulate myself for not contributing to funding drug culture.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely heartless. I remember during exam period last year, there was a homeless man sat outside Tesco Express, opposite the University. I was going in for my daily meal deal, and I asked him if he would like anything. He proceeded to come inside with me and I bought him a meal deal too. The entire event was rather odd, to say the least. As we entered Tesco, he ran up and down the aisles, to the point where I lost him. The Tesco is not big, but the man ran so fast, I had to chase him through the shop. Initially I assumed he was excited to have some food, but as I was leaving Tesco, he ran away. Confused by this entire escapade, I continued to walk to University. Soon, a police officer approached me. He asked me if I had given the homeless man any money, where I told him I had bought him a meal deal. Without any context, the police officer told me to not do this again. This reconfirmed my scepticism of homeless people, and I decided it was perhaps in the best interest to not interact with homeless people. A true martyr, I know.
Then, approximately two weeks ago, my entire cynicism dissolved.
My mum’s friend recently started volunteering at a homeless shelter and shared her experiences. She explained that in the shelter, the people were offered a shower and their clothes were cleaned. Her specific role in the homeless shelter is, as the homeless people go to shower, she empties the pockets of their clothes. Rather cynically, I proceeded to ask how many needles she had found, to which she responded that although she has not found any, she is required to wear needle-proof-gloves, ‘just in case’. My suspicions had been validated.
But then she retold stories that she had heard, from people who are currently living on the street.
A man had moved in with his mother in London after leaving his wife in Scotland. Soon after the move, his mother had to go into a care home. To pay for this, the son had to sell his mother’s home. The man thought the most viable option was move back in his with his wife, but she had met someone new. The son had no other family, and consequently, he was made homeless. This man went from having a normal life, to having nothing, due to circumstances that were out of his control.
It can take three missed paycheques to make you homeless.
This statistic really shocked me. I reached out to the Jewish Volunteering Network (JVN) to see if there was something I could do to contribute. Something bittersweet came to light. Homelessness isn’t really a ‘thing’ for the Jewish community. This is because as a community, we tend to be supportive of one another. If, g-d forbid, someone in the community needed financial support, we consistently provide.
Not everyone is as lucky to have such a supportive community that they can depend on. Homelessness remains a serious issue in Britain. At the end of 2018, 320,000 people were recorded to be homeless in Britain. That is the equivalent of filling up the 02 arena 16 times. What is even more shocking: The Vagrancy Act of 1824 is still in place making it an official offence to sleep rough or to beg. In other words, anyone found to be sleeping in a public place or asking for money on the streets, can be arrested.
The real message is, many homeless people were at one point just people with a family, living at home; a ‘normal’ person. Unfortunate things, situations that are out of anyone’s control, can force people to become homeless. This is truly terrifying.
Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that not every person on the street has this story. I have had my fair share of unfortunate exchanges with homeless people. I am also aware that my ‘pocket’ is not limitless, and I can’t buy a ‘meal deal’ for every homeless person I see.
This isn’t a ploy for me to tell you to give all your spare change away, or to make you feel guilty. I simply wanted to share what I have learnt, and how in turn, it has completely transformed my perception of homeless people.
We are all products of a really strong and supportive community, and I really think this is something I have taken for granted for the past 22 years.
Rebecca Lewis, UJS Sabbatical Officer