I can’t think of many things worse than being homeless and forced to live on the streets but it must be especially bad at Christmas. When most of us are putting up trees and stringing up the lights in our lovely warm rooms many people are huddling into doorways trying to shelter from the rain and the cold.
Over the years in the course of my job I have spoken to a wide range of the homeless. Being naturally curious (some say nosy) as well as providing the medical help required, I always like to know ‘how’ and ‘why’? ‘How’ they have come to be living on the street and ‘why’ they are living like this. The answers given are as individual as the people giving them.
Some are escaping from an abusive home and have slipped through the safety nets provided by social services. Some have fallen on hard times and have been evicted from a previous home without the means to find an alternative.
In some of the areas I know that there have been emergency overnight shelters available but still a large number choose instead to stay on the streets. Why? One young lad told me that bullying was rife in these shelters – he went to one and was threatened with violence if he didn’t give up what little he had to the ‘gang’ which seemed to control that particular place. When I asked about staff there he said that they just weren’t interested and left the residents to ‘sort it out themselves’. He felt safer out on the street. Another, slightly older person said he was banned from the shelter for smuggling alcohol and crack cocaine in for his own use. His need to feed his addiction was greater than his need for shelter. I can see both sides to this dilemma, it’s quite right that the people running the hostels want them to be clean and safe but I can also see that realistically an addict cannot give up his addiction just like that. It’s easy to judge and say that he should just give up the alcohol and crack cocaine but addictions are serious physical and mental conditions which take time, will power and professional help to overcome. And once overcome, continued support and a removal from previous lifestyle and influences is required to prevent remission.
Drug use is said to be widespread among the homeless. Advice given by the council of my city is that we should not give spare change to individual homeless people as this will be used for drugs and alcohol, we are encouraged instead to support the established charities set up to help the homeless. This seems a bit judgemental and ‘big brother’ to me. Sure, some will probably use the cash to buy the next fix – but maybe that’s better than mugging and stealing the cash. I’m not in any way condoning drug use. I’ve seen firsthand the devastating and tragic effects of recreational drugs, I’m just being realistic. Before we judge too harshly it’s worth asking my favourite question: why? Why are so many using drugs? For some it starts with a wish to experience an altered state of mind, some it’s peer pressure, some to mask or escape from the reality of their lives, including PTSD from abuse or horrific military experiences. Once the addiction kicks in obviously it’s a desperate need to feed the addiction and stave off the withdrawal symptoms.
So what’s the answer? How do we fix things and get all the homeless into some sort of safe shelter?
In my oversimplified mind I think there are two problems to tackle:
Firstly we need to deal with the people homeless now. We need a range of accommodation options. Different individuals have different needs and we need a varied range of support including drug, alcohol and mental health support and all backed up with a firm, safe yet understanding regime.
Secondly we need to prevent the next generation of the homeless. I firmly believe that we should educate our young in how to handle life. Give them realistic and healthy coping mechanisms for the disappointments and heartaches in life and try to steer them away from the destructive ones. Invest in community mental health services so when things go wrong support is there from the beginning to hopefully prevent the spiral downwards in mental health which can ultimately end up on the streets.
So what can every one of us do today to help?
One positive thing is to acknowledge the homeless people you see. Make eye contact and say hi. If you don’t feel comfortable giving change, still make contact and if necessary say you’re not giving money today but hope that things will work out for them. Most will appreciate being acknowledged and treated as human – it may even save a life! One homeless girl I once spoke to said one day she had made up her mind to end her life as all she could see was despair and no future. A smile and simple human contact from a kind woman passing by changed her mind and made her decide to stay around a bit longer.
I hope you all have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas and feel comfortable, warm and loved.