Homelessness: The Bigger Issue

GREGORY LEWIS on our perception of the homeless community and BEN WEISZ and JOHN WALLIS on what it was like to spend a night on the streets.

Homelessness jimmy's night shelter radio The Big Issue unholy trinity

Gregory Lewis, student and volunteer at Jimmy’s Night Shelter offers his opinion on our perception of the homeless community.

It’s hard to go around Cambridge without seeing the homeless: the ‘Big Issue’ seller, the people squatting outside Sainsbury’s, the guy who approaches you as you stumble out of Cindies for your spare change. They make you feel uncomfortable and on guard. There’s a sort of autopilot response: stare ahead, walk briskly, lie about not having anything to spare.

After all, the homeless get in the way. They interrupt your frightfully important student business. Don’t they know it’s exam term? They annoy you when they beg for change, when you just know it’s to fuel whatever addiction they may have. It’s not your fault they ended up like this, so why are they bothering you? Or, maybe you think: it’s not your fault they ended up like this, so why are you feeling guilty?

You’re not alone in your sentiments. Remember the Union Bursar’s comments in support of fencing off the Round Church: that it would prevent the vagrants ‘contaminating the view‘. Yet, it is sentiments like that, rather than the ‘vagrants’, that are the real eyesore here: they are people, not vermin. Perhaps the real contaminant is a more moral malaise. It’s uncomfortably tricky to go to a dinner, or a speech, or a ball if you have to walk past people without a bed for the night to get there. It’s much kinder to your conscience if you can convince yourself they deserve it. Failing that, there’s the old saying: out of sight, out of mind.

Another misguided attitude is pity. The homeless community aren’t all boozing criminals, but they aren’t all saintly infants either. Drug use, alcoholism, criminality and mental illness are not uncommon, and they are sometimes a cause, rather than a result, of homelessness. Yet there’s no need to infantilise or patronise the homeless to make them seem deserving. The mistakes they’ve made – usually greatly amplified by circumstances beyond their control – are the sort of things I could see myself doing, were my circumstances not so gilded. Besides, even if you can convince yourself you’d never do something so bad as, for example, petty crime or substance abuse, those who have faltered have surely paid enough for their mistakes.

So, homelessness is complicated. Yet, it’s also far from hopeless. Realising that the homeless are neither morally repugnant vermin nor convenient human-sized receptacles for a handout is paramount. I urge you to spare a thought for them: the easy prejudices and reflexive canards that surround homelessness do serious damage. A change in attitude can only be positive.

Last week, students Ben Weisz and John Wallis, presenters of the Unholy Trinity radio show, spent a night on the streets of Cambridge in the hope of finding out what homelessness is really like, and in order to raise money for Jimmy’s Night Shelter. Ben and John told us about their experience.

It’s hard for those of us who’ve always had a home to appreciate its full cultural and psychological significance. Having a home is central to your idea of yourself as a human being and a member of society. Most of us have no idea of what it’s like to lack that.

Having spent a night sleeping rough under a bridge, what was most striking was not the physical discomfort of the concrete floor, the constant noise or the sub-zero temperatures (even in the summer, wearing five layers of clothing and a heavy-duty sleeping bag, the gusts of wind being funnelled under our bridge felt Antarctic). What struck me was the incredible loneliness. It’s impossible to sleep outside in most cities without being within view of normal houses. Everyone else has a roof and a bed. Sleeping on the street makes you, quite literally, feel sub-human: you lack what (apparently) everyone else has. You’ve failed to reach a sufficient degree of civilisation.

As we attempted to get some sleep, people walked and cycled past without so much as a backward glance. During the night, several dozen people passed us. Only one stopped. CCTV cameras stare down at the homeless, reminding them of the society gawping at them but choosing to ignore them.

Exposed, ignored, and humiliated: I would be that these intense psychological elements would cause much more harm to the homeless over the long term than the immediate, physical sensations of cold, wet or hunger. I can see how these traumas naturally lead to a deep mistrust or hatred of ‘civilised’ society, or to a crisis of self-confidence and a collapse of one’s sense of self-worth or dignity.

Spending one night on the streets made me realise that the way in which we stereotype the homeless is unhelpful and leads to thinking trapped in the box. There are solutions to homelessness, but they are not easy and they are definitely not obvious. The very first thing we need to do is equip ourselves with a real understanding of the problem, otherwise everything we do will be misguided, no matter how noble our intentions.

The Unholy Trinity radio show will be broadcast on www.cur1350.co.uk on Saturday 8th May from 4-6pm. You can request a song by donating £5, or simply find more information at www.justgiving.com/unholytrinity