Tab Tries: Being homeless for a day

BEN BAMBOROUGH STIMSON experiences the plights of Cambridge’s homeless population.

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I’m sure you’ve seen them but turned your head. I’m sure you’ve heard them but pretended otherwise.

And I’m sure, at some point, you had decided to give them the scraps of coins left over from your long night out.

With such an abundance of homeless people in Cambridge, the division of the privileged and the poor has formed such an integral part of our local culture, but we as students only see one side of this great city: the comfortable side. Unaware of what I was getting myself into, I became homeless for a day. I slept outside, I had no money other than what I had begged for and no one for company. I challenge everyone to do the same before pretending to understand what it means to be homeless.

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People become invisible in the street

The start of the day was in fact rather exciting. I assumed it would be no more than a bit of fun for a silly Tab article. I was already well fed from the night before, washed and had a comfortable night’s sleep. But as hunger emerged, I decided it was time to make some money (any money I had begged for was donated to Winter Comfort and I matched the sum I was given). Fortunately, at this time of year, the affluence of tourists was a well that wouldn’t run dry.

At first, I just begged at passers-by. Most ignored me, but every so often someone who felt too socially awkward to not donate gave me the odd 50p. Some people in Cambridge definitely care and were willing to give up to five pounds, but these were unfortunately far too rare. I had noticed that people seemed to be donating more to me than others, perhaps as I resembled a more privileged man with my washed clothes, or perhaps because I’m young. People were far more human to me than real life homeless people.

With insufficient funds, I had to get more creative. Learning from people I had donated to in the past, I found I was more likely to give if they had an elaborate story, perhaps just so I could continue with my day. The tactic was to annoy people into giving, and it worked. I pretended I needed money for a cab. I made some excuse about paying rent off and even pretended that it was my birthday. No one believed it, but they paid nonetheless, and that was all that counted. I finally had enough to afford some lunch. People don’t trust the homeless, but no one seems to grasp that they lie because they are desperate.

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Would you give?

Boredom struck once my hunger was quelled. There was nothing to do but walk and beg. It’s a horrifyingly monotonous existence. Every day, just wake up and be spat on by the public and then have no other option but to beg from people that are disgusted by you. Other people seemed to read a book, play chess or play with their dog. Sometimes I would just sit and sleep and hope people would donate while I spirited away the hours. It’s sad.

The night was the worst. There is no comfort, just a cardboard box to sleep on outside of Sainsbury’s. I can’t even imagine the sleepless nights these people have to endure during winter. I stank. The stench of garbage woke me constantly. By 3.00am, I gave up on trying to swat away the flies, just out of exhaustion. The night was terrifying, but at least there was no one to judge me apart from the odd herd of lads coming back from Cindies.

After I had returned home, I decided to investigate local shelters. I didn’t want to abuse their charity so I decided to sleep rough, but the point has to be made that these shelters are available, but are extremely limited. Unfortunately, if you don’t make it to the shelter in time, you’ll be sleeping rough. Every moment is a decision: do I want to stay and beg for money, or leave to find shelter. Unfortunately, both cannot be done adequately.

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Winter Comfort

The lives of real homeless people are tragic, but there are those that abuse the system. One woman begged someone for a £20 quid takeaway. If you’re actually homeless, you would stretch that out over weeks. There is a small faction of people who are just trying to make a little bit of extra money for free.

Seeing my predicament, I was even asked if I wanted to become part of a homeless network. A chain of people who rotate positions, trade items and animals to find the best combination for donations and divide the total evenly. While the solidarity may help, I can’t help but realise the system is operated by non-homeless people using the desperate to make an extra £10 a day.  It’s wrong but at the same time, the system does benefit them.

It’s a sad reality that no one wants to accept, but there is such a contrast in Cambridge between the rich and the poor. And if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that we should try and help the homeless as much as possible but you may be right if you are sceptical.

There are people who are abusing the generosity of the common man, but at the same time, if you knew the desperation of real homeless people, you’d be willing to take that chance.