After James Beavis told his story of sleeping rough in London for a month to raise money for Crisis, our readers shared their thoughts – and personal experiences – about homelessness in the UK
Last modified on Mon 3 Feb 2020 07.50 EST
I knew someone who, despite her many prestigious qualifications, ended up sleeping rough because of her mental status. Homelessness can affect anybody. It’s not just people that we believe may have fallen off the edge of society. It can be you or me, or someone we once knew. Please do not look away. (Jeff Hurll)
As individuals, we don’t have the resources or incentive to help every homeless person. By looking after our own families, we contribute to keeping people off the streets – if only everyone did. But we can pressure our societies to sort out the problem. This is what having a social system is about in the end, surely.
I grew up in India, which boasts some of the greatest income inequality in the world, and experiences heartbreaking levels of poverty. Needless to say, homeless communities are typically larger and coalesce into large support networks. And the country is warm. To be homeless in Britain brings with it a punishment of the harsh cold and material want. There can be no greater cruelty in this country. (Anahita Sharma)
We have to do more to help homeless people but nothing will change while we have a government that introduces policies that make life impossible for people who are living hand to mouth.
There was an awful incident near Westfield a few months ago where school-age teenagers, laughing, filmed their friends kicking an elderly homeless man onto the floor in broad daylight. We have a government that has no empathy, so perhaps it’s no surprise school kids get off being like that too. (Grafton01)
I have just spent 31 days hitchhiking across the UK with no money and surviving on the kindness of strangers to highlight homelessness across the country and raise money for Centrepoint. Every homeless person has a different story, and for most, it goes beyond not having a home. I’ve heard stories across the UK during my journey of homeless people having their tents set on fire, being urinated on and physically abused.
On a more positive note, I have experienced the kindness and generosity of people across the UK, from directing me to the nearest shelter to booking me a train ticket to the next town with dinner money in hand. There are very kind people out there handing out food, toiletries and socks. Social Bite is a charitable cafe chain in Scotland that invests 100% of their profits and have now started building shelters for the homeless. No matter where you are in life, the only thing that should matter is showing kindness to one another and extending a hand instead of a foot. (King Wilson)
I graduated from a top university with honours, and was successful in my field, working internationally for a number of years. In my mid-20s, my young and beautiful wife died suddenly, and violently. I tried to get help. I was diagnosed with a whole raft of disorders – PTSD, major depression, etc. I cycled through medications and psychologists; nothing worked. Eventually, and in suicidal desperation, I found something that did – injecting heroin.
Eventually, I ended up on the streets. Most addicts will have similar stories – they are victims of rape, child abuse, and all manner of horrors. Many lack even the barest chance to get help, or any kind of family.
I’m no longer homeless, yet to this day it upsets me to see people ignore the homeless rather than give them money “to spend on drugs”. If you’re going to be generous, if you’re that lucky to be able to do so, then do it without moral judgement. Those who use drugs will stop when they are able to, not when they run out of money.
I admit that prior to falling well and truly over the edge, I had neither experience nor understanding of drug addicts and homeless people. And hence very little sympathy for them. Yet, what I think many fail to realise, in such common ideas like they “would never revert to drink or drugs”, is that every man and woman has a breaking point, somewhere, even if most will thankfully never have to meet with it.
I lost my wife, but I also lost myself – every ambition, every hope and dream, every enjoyment and passion, every possibility of happiness, and in short, everything that defined me as a person. If it happens that a person is stripped absolutely bare, becomes a stranger even to themselves, who can say what they are or are not capable of doing, and of becoming? The moral superiority of those who look down on drug addicts and homeless people, or presume to know what is best for them, hangs by a thread. (john doe)
My wife takes orders off the homeless people who sit outside our local shop. Last month one woman asked for a bag of crisps and a bottle of cherry coke and burst into tears when she got it. These are human beings at their lowest ebb, a little humanity can mean the world to them. (Greg Rose)
During a bout of homelessness that began one Christmas eve, I could not “get down” to sitting on the street. I saw that it was necessary or normal but I just couldn’t accomplish it. This led me to walking around maintaining regular appearance although I was dead on my feet with sleeplessness and hunger – but it also led to opportunities, like coming across a Hare Krishna mobile food kitchen that was being all but ignored. This was literally manna from heaven and it made them very happy to reach somebody in need. (Neuromantic)
My own experience with being homeless in London lead me to the conclusion: help yourself, keep going. You are poor in the wealthiest city in the world, the crumbs fall downwards, you will be given a chance to get up again. There is an awful lot of patronising which sees the homeless as almost braindead or comatose, but if sleeping on the street doesn’t sharpen you up and get you active, nothing will. (Mark Kavanagh)
A friend of mine has opened up a mobile soup kitchen, and after some homeless people were chucked out of their sleeping spots, someone else in our community kitted out an old bus to make it a safe place for people to sleep.
Though the council have tried to stop them helping homeless people, the public support for these local initiates has now forced the council to start acting – but it is so cash-strapped that it is groaning under the impossibility of the demands. Central government won’t properly resource local authorities to do the work they are legally – let alone morally – obliged to do. It is appalling and it all starts with a government that encourages us to look down at the needy and see them as less than human. (sylviamc)
Recently I spoke to a woman who had been homeless for six weeks. Lucid, articulate, she had experienced a set of horrible circumstances – the loss of her mother recently, plus she had recently recovered from pneumonia and lost her home. She said she felt awful when people looked at her in the street, as it was nasty and judgmental. She told me that the shelters were always full and she just wanted to get back into doing what she had always done – hairdressing. But without somewhere reliable to stay or sleep, she could barely think straight and was so tired, constantly trying to nap, as she could not sleep in doorways on the streets.
I know that there are numerous commercial buildings which have empty floors, yet more commercial buildings are being constructed elsewhere. In times of crisis, such as storms or flooding, leisure centres and public buildings open their main halls to give the public shelter. While all of this requires coordination and funding, it surely affords many homeless people a better chance at maintaining some control over their lives. (Phoebe3)
The scale of cities is the major problem. Some years ago a guy whose relationship broke down pitched up, literally, in a £10 tent under a road bridge in our small town. Within hours the police were there officially telling him to move on. Within another hour they were back with a bag of food and drink from the Co-op manager. He was given clothing to keep him dry and warm, and after a while talking to locals he found a job and an old caravan on the farm where he worked.
My own experience of homelessness in a small city leads me to believe that the way we were treated was purely down to fear. People are so close to destitution in the UK that when it stares them in the face they can easily react badly. Eight million people in the UK are one payday away from being homeless. Half of the entire US population is one crisis from the streets. Neo-liberal capitalism needs these conditions because, as my late commie uncle used to say: “Nobody ever got ‘up in the world’ without standing on somebody’s face”. (showmaster)
When I asked a friend who worked with homeless people why more was not being done about it, the answer was: “The problem about homelessness is that it’s not actually about homes. If only it were!” Her point being that if it were just a case of housing people then that could be solved quite easy, by spending a limited amount of money.
The problem comes from all the other stuff that comes with homelessness. As she explained, a large majority of people on the streets – in the British context at least – are experiencing mental illness and/or addiction issues. And to deal with that requires another level of social care and full-on support. All of which costs a lot more than simply putting someone in a flat. It requires the sort of joined-up thinking by all the various agencies to really focus on the needs of the individual. The question is: will any government be willing to pay out for that? (clerkenwellboi)
I worked in homeless services for many years during the time of the Rough Sleepers Initiative and while this was a long way from perfect, it really did make a difference and the number of rough sleepers did dramatically reduce. I have been horrified to see that our society has allowed the numbers to increase again – it is to our shame.
I find comments about giving people food and clothes rather than money slightly concerning. While nothing against this in principle, please make sure you are asking the homeless person what they would actually like. To just assume a homeless person should be grateful for whatever they are given, ignoring their personal tastes, is also dehumanising them. As a former homeless worker my view on whether you give cash or not is ... it is up to you. If you do, some of your money will be used to pay for drugs and alcohol – but some of your money spent on anything is paid in wages to individuals who will choose to spend some of it on drugs and alcohol! (sundance)
I have had experiences of homelessness in my life – sometimes out of choice, and later through addiction. One thing I remember from the streets is that there were a lot of charities, shelters and food handouts. But using these became increasingly difficult with addiction. If it’s a choice between feeding your addiction or belly, the addiction will always come first. Likewise, even the meagre paperwork or time-keeping needed for a bed in a hostel will seem insurmountable when trying to maintain a habit. (mista)
As someone who’s spent time homeless and rough sleeping myself, I’m going to cause a bit of controversy and ask people to take a look at the homeless people they see around them. What’s common to the majority of these people? They’re predominantly men. There are hundreds of shelters, refuges and organisations that will support women in relationship breakdowns, but very few that support men. Men are just expected to “get on with it”.
Time and again, as an older man with both physical and mental health problems, I saw my place in the queue for housing being taken by young women with family and resources. Even a period of hospitalisation was not sufficient to help my cause. Please understand, I’m not bitter and I’m not suggesting that men should be put first – I’m suggesting that local authorities adopt a more equitable approach to homelessness. (Glenn Willis)
I’ve slept rough in London twice having drunkenly missed my last train home. On the second occasion I got chatting to a couple of homeless guys and they let me crash in their “pad”, ie an old mattress which they’d installed in a hotel courtyard storage cupboard. If there’s a moral to this story – aside from not getting drunk and missing your train – it’s that often the people who have the least are the most generous, and the homeless are no exception. (BanjoGuru)
This is not a problem that will be solved by individual acts of kindness. Being kind to rough sleepers, giving them hot drinks or care packages, or just saying hello is very nice. But, we also need to hold the government to account, and address the policies that have put people on the street in the first place. For example, because of deep cuts to council budgets in the last five to six years, funding for hostels for rough sleepers has declined. I believe Westminster council recently had to shut down two hostels due to cuts in funding. Those are places that could have offered a warm, safe bed for rough sleepers. (Leviathan212)
The most common thing I’ve heard from homeless people I’ve talked to is that the feeling of being invisible is what really drags them down. Giving to homeless charities is great; they do essential work and need as much support as they can get. But the mental and emotional lift it can give a homeless person just to have a bit of human interaction with a stranger on the street shouldn’t be underestimated.
It doesn’t matter how they ended up on the streets, that’s not your business; it still remains that you have a roof over your head and they don’t, so even if you’re so strapped for cash that all you can offer is a moment’s eye contact and a few words as you pass, please give those freely. It’ll cost you nothing and could mean a great deal to them. (StayFree)