Cambridge’s Homeless Problem

The issues surrounding homelessness in Cambridge aren’t as simple as they may seem

Cambridge Cambridge University charity homeless Homelessness jimmy's money

There’s almost seldom a walk into Cambridge in which I am not approached by a man or woman asking me if I can ‘spare some change.’

I often pat my pockets, pull a sad face and reply ‘sorry I don’t have any’, fully aware of the irony that I’m just about to go into Sainsbury’s and spend £20 on mini eggs and discounted cookies. I justify my actions by saying to myself ‘they’ll probably spend it on drugs and alcohol anyway’, and it is often difficult to give money to someone only to see them 20 minutes later with a bottle of wine in their hands. Recently, however,  I’ve begun to question whether this is just an outdated, demonising stereotype, and if I lack basic empathy for other humans in need.

Just as human as you. Never forget that.

It’s certainly a rather hypocritical viewpoint to have. Most of us at the university use alcohol (and some of us drugs) to escape from the stress and pressure of life. So why should it be any different for beggars and homeless people to do the same? They should be entitled to temporary relief from their own tribulations and adversity in exactly the same manner that we are.

For people with addictive personalities such as myself, it is easy to see how, had I not had the support of family and friends, one could spiral into such destitution. Yet, even though it is easy to empathise with them, there is still so much stigma around giving the homeless beggars money.

I think the primary reason for this is a lack of education: most beggars aren’t homeless, and most homeless do not beg. A BBC Breakfast report in July 2015 found that out of 1,002 people arrested for begging in London, only 199 – less than 1/5 – were homeless. In 2017, there is simply no need to beg if you’re homeless: it is a myth that you can’t claim benefits if you don’t have an address, and there are multiple charities within Cambridge and throughout the country that provide free accommodation, food, clothing and support for those who need it.

Beds, roofs, and warm food

In Birmingham in 2013, 60% of beggars had a home. This means that the overwhelming majority asking you for spare change on the street aren’t doing so because they need somewhere to stay, they’re doing it to support their drug addiction – 80%, according to the Metropolitan Police. Giving them money could be doing them more harm than good, instigating a vicious cycle in which they buy and consume escalating quantities of drugs, which could potentially lead to an overdose.

Yet there are some seriously blurred lines which complicate things. What about the 40% of beggars who are homeless, and the 20% who do not have a drug addiction? A disproportionate 40% of all homeless youth are LGBT, despite them comprising only 7% of the demographic population. We can’t stereotype all the homeless and all the beggars into one amorphous category.

The closest you’re getting to footage from “that” video

Instead, as has tripled in the days succeeding the attempted burning of the £20 note, we should donate to, or volunteer with, local homeless charities. Or we could, as my friends and I often do, buy them a sandwich or a cup of coffee, or engage in conversation with them.

The important thing here is that we are guaranteed that our money will be going towards making a positive, and more importantly, permanent change in their lives.