Have you ever seen a dead body on the street?
Most of us haven’t. What if you did? You’d undoubtably have some violent reactions. Call 999. Try and resuscitate them. Shout and cry. All of these? Lots of other things too probably. It’s something that would affect you for life. What about a body lying unconscious outside in the night. This is a sight for immediate panic: uncertain of their age, gender, medical conditions, general state of health anything could be wrong. Again, I’m sure you’d be extremely concerned. What if it was one of these common below zero winters? We would care about this person’s survival… it’s not every day you come across a life or death situation like that.
Apart from it is.
And, shockingly, the very vast majority of people don’t care, self-inflict unawareness and carry on. This cold glassy regard of society passes the point of heart breaking. It is murderous. How as human beings with the capacity for compassion have we been so conditioned that we have arrived here? Our hedonistic individualist society is appallingly desensitised to and distanced from human strife, suffering and violations of social justice. Unless of course these are directed at us or those in our near vicinity. But please, please can we stop with this shudderingly frightening apathy. The shrugging acceptance of this as some kind of inevitable norm, as the unopposable ‘way of things’, as an intrinsic element of modern life and society that must be accepted and lived through nonetheless. It must be neither accepted nor lived through. It must be directly opposed and transformed.
I was in the park the other morning, it was -7 degrees and there were four unconscious figures lain in the middle of the grass. The park was full of people walking their dogs, going to work, doing whatever you do on a Monday morning. They were all calmly walking past these bodies. Without even a glance. Without even a pause of acknowledgement. This may sound surreal. Unfortunately it’s what goes on on a daily basis in countless places across the world, especially cities like mine.
These people were rough sleepers covered in blankets and highly visible. Homeless people. The stigma surrounding homeless people is costing lives. Wait — no, scrap that: not ‘the stigma’ – the active expression of an arbitrarily constructed and foundation-less stigma by people all around us, and perhaps even people such as yourself, is killing the vulnerable. The quantities of homeless people in our towns and cities is reaching ever-increasing heights year on year. It is a humanitarian crisis. We are surrounded by, living next to and amongst these people. Would you not hope that if life dealt you a series of cruel and unfortunate blows that your fellow humans would reach out and help? Ok maybe not help. It’s likely that their own personal schedules, desires, objectives, values, finances etc etc. supersede your acute and desperate need for support with your physical health, mental health, finances and shelter. That’s fine. That’s more or less to be expected. Deplorable and revolting as it is. However, if your very LIFE was in danger, if you were in a critical condition facing death – you would think that out of the entire population of people surrounding you – some, if not all, would take immediate and decisive action. How about nobody. The idea that you would be left to die as feet continued to tread softly around your body, is surely unimaginable. Unimaginable, or, in the case of thousands of rough sleepers around the country, a day-to-day reality.
I live in Bristol, a city whose homelessness problem is just one example of the wider national humanitarian crisis. In 2010 there were only 7 rough sleepers on the streets of Bristol. In 2014 there were 41 and in 2015 94. Over a four-year period council spending on services preventing homelessness will be cut by around 40 percent. Already, Bristol City Council’s budgets for preventing homelessness have been reduced by 20% from 2011-2015. Last year 5,600 households in Bristol either became homeless or were threatened with homelessness.It is a problem which is accelerating at an alarming rate.
Crisis UK recently published their 2016 report ‘the homelessness monitor’ which is the result of five years of work and research into homelessness across the UK. It reveals a similarly extremely worrying trend of sharp increase fueled by socio-economic factors, and a general political, as well as public, disregard for victims of homelessness.
<< Homelessness is a crisis. It is devastating and should not happen to anyone. Homelessness is an isolating and frightening experience. Homeless people are invisible, ignored and forgotten. At worst, homelessness can mean sleeping rough on the streets. However the problem of homelessness is much bigger than that of rough sleeping. After years of declining trends, all forms of homelessness have risen due to the shortage of housing and ongoing effects of the economic recession combined with government policies – particularly reforms and cuts to housing benefit. Independent research carried out for Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that homelessness is likely to increase further still. Almost one in ten people say they have been homeless at some point, with a fifth of these people saying it happened in the last five years.>>
The report revealed that government street counts estimated around 3,569 people sleep rough on any one night across England in 2015, a rise of 30% on the previous year and double the amount since 2010. But this is only a tiny snapshot – the actual figures are much higher. 8, 096 people were seen sleeping rough in London in 2015/16 which is a 7% increase compared to 2014. 8% of 16-24 year olds report recently being homeless. Housing benefit has been cut by around £7bn. Housing benefit for many young people is so low it often won’t cover the cost of even a room in a cheap shared house, leaving people to sleep where they can – on the floors of friends or family or, at worst, the streets. Up to 80% of homeless people have mental health problems and the average age of death for a homeless man is 47 (compared to national average 77) and 43 for a woman (compared to the national average of 80). These figures are only a slim reflection of the reality, as the government definition of ‘homeless’ excludes the large proportion of those actually homeless from their statistics, and so do not take into account the huge numbers of people sleeping in caravans, tents, hostels, shelters, who are squatters, sofa surfers or anybody not physically lying down on the street at the exact time of the count. Homeless people are far more likely to be attacked, victims of traffic accidents and freezing winters.
These are some of the people whom life had treated the cruelest. Victims of an oppressive capitalist hierarchical system which disdains to have a safety net to catch those in economic turmoil, abusive relationships or migrating from war-torn home countries. The running argument seems to go that we can’t help everyone. People all over the world are suffering atrocities, why should I choose to help this one on the street next to me? Well. Because they are next to you. Most people don’t present themselves directly before you like this… if a lost child approached you for help I’d really hope you wouldn’t give yourself the same excuse. Maybe you would. It isn’t the same, but it isn’t that different either. We have the power to make an impact in eachothers’ lives. We exist in an immediate community together. There are not different species of people existing in your microcosm from whom you are unrecognisable and separate. Homelessness can happen to anybody. Ideas of difference breed hate. We must learn from the appalling manifestations of such hate and ideas of difference which, before our eyes, are manifesting themselves with increasing explosiveness around the world – and we must NOT reproduce them. We must directly oppose them. To do anything else is to be complicit. To tell yourself anything else is to indulge in dishonest platitudes.
The homeless are one group of vulnerable and suffering people to whom it is easy for us to share our compassion and demonstrate our solidarity any day. They are part of all of our lives. Surely caring about our fellow beings is the most fundamental and important action we can take during our lives. If you don’t want to buy them a coffee because you’re too busy, fine. To be dismissive or commendatory about their potential death is not fine.
Stop walking past these people as if they’re objects. Start treating them for what they actually are.
[All accessed 03.12.2016]