Real Activism

SOPHIE HOARE gets to the nub of the less overt elements of poverty around Cambridge. How much could you be doing to help?

debate Homelessness Poverty sophie hoare Student Activism

This article originated with a request for a piece on homelessness in Cambridge. Do we really ‘get it’, and what is it we’re missing about the issue? I would argue homelessness is actually one of the more obvious problems that the city faces.

When was the last time you were asked to buy the Big Issue, or spare some change on your way to Sainsburys? We may be privileged sons and daughters of the affluent, wandering along with our heads stuck in the intellectual clouds, but we’re not that ignorant or uncaring. What’s easier to miss are the many diverse groups in Cambridge who are disadvantaged and marginalised in more subtle ways.

If you hop on a bus in St Andrews St, and stay on it for longer than 15 minutes, you might well find yourself surrounded by council estates and a school where few children advance to A-levels, let alone university. This was a strange experience for me when I first started volunteering through Student Community Action, a charity I’m not going to plug (but you can find out more here).

I was there to support a Lithuanian boy who struggled to read and write, having been discovered living on a traveller site with his two brothers. Through the same volunteering project, I got to know some families in the large Turkish community that live on the estate up by the Vue cinema.

I met mothers who felt pretty helpless, unable to help their children with their homework or afford to pay for the extra tuition they needed to overcome the language barrier. It’s not a form of disadvantage that jumps out at you, but families like this make up a fairly substantial proportion of Cambridge inhabitants.

Some of the work done at SCA

And this is just one example. People I know volunteer with vulnerable groups of all shapes and sizes, from elderly people who need assistance to get out round the shops, to children deprived, in various ways, in low-income households. 19 % of all dependent children in Cambridge live in households receiving Housing or Council Tax Benefit, according to a 2009 study by Cambridge City Council.

I am in no way suggesting that these problems are more severe or deserving of our attention than issues like homelessness – if comparisons of that sort were even possible. But what does seem clear to me is that many of the problems I’ve discussed have simpler and more immediate solutions. How much effort does it take to listen to a child read for an hour each week? Or chat to a lonely elderly person over a cup of tea every so often?

At the risk of appearing to endorse David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ flagship vision, which, as, a typical left-wing student type, I am honour-bound not to do, the basic idea that people should take action in their community has a hell of a lot going for it. Paul Twivy, former CEO of the Big Society Network until his frustrated resignation over the progress made by that particular body, observed that ‘Our neighbourhoods are the biggest untapped source of happiness and practical resources in our lives. Every one of us is both vulnerable and capable.’

The state must not shirk its responsibility towards its citizens. But neither must we towards our local community.