Sunday, 4 March 2012

Homelessness

Yesterday I spent my second night sleeping rough with a group from Bristol Labour Students to raise money for homelessness charity St Mungo’s. We found shelter in front of some shops in Clifton Village – we’re sleeping in different locations each day, Thursday being on the Triangle and Friday in Redland Station – and quickly got into sleeping bags to keep warm.

The sleepout is not about us. As Abi and Joe, the brilliant organisers who have inspired the rest of us by staying out 7 consecutive nights, put it: ‘We aren’t destitute, we have safety in numbers... We all know we have warm beds to go back to at the end of the week and aren’t going to experience any of the feelings of hopelessness associated with rough sleeping.' We’re certainly not trying to claim we now know what it’s like to be homeless, but that doesn’t mean our nights on the street haven’t made us think about how homeless people might feel. Take an example. We would ask in caf├ęs and restaurants to use the toilet when we needed to. Most staff were fine about it or didn’t object. Bags under our eyes or not, we did not look impoverished, and they were happy for us to use their facilities. Think about how difficult something as basic as finding a toilet can be for a homeless person. Often not having washed for weeks, they are regularly turned away, and even when they are allowed to use them, it can be a stressful process. If we felt self-conscious and awkward, think about the daily ordeal they go through for something - to us - as basic as finding a loo.

As well as raising money for St Mungo’s – at time of writing we’ve made over £3000 – we’ve been trying to raise awareness. While many passers-by kindly put money in the buckets and were friendly, the amount of ignorance has been shocking (I should confess that I wasn't aware of the scale of the problem before reading about it last week). Some didn’t realise homelessness was still an issue. Others asked ‘Isn’t it their own fault?’ Vicious cycles are common, with rough sleepers often spending money that they don’t have fuelling drug and alcohol addictions; but to say it's their fault is grossly ill-informed. The biggest single cause of homelessness is relationship breakdown. 35% of women on the streets slept rough after leaving home to escape domestic violence. One of the rough sleepers I spoke to had been a soldier in Afghanistan. He risks his life for the country and what does he get back? He doesn’t even get basic provisions like shelter.

As left-wing students annoyed to be rudely moved by delicatessen owners who claimed we were occupying space reserved for ‘customers’ (which were clearly queuing up in their thousands to sit on the uninviting soaking wet tables they wanted to put out…) you can imagine our grumbles at the right to private property being enforced. But while he by no means provided a panacea, Marx posed a serious question. Why shouldn’t we be at least debating whether or not it would be justified to use a £2 million house in Clifton whose owner hasn’t been there in 3 years as shelter for the 20 or 30 homeless people it could provide a roof for? Rough sleeping increased by 23% between 2010 and 2011. It is a huge problem that government (who somehow see it as a priority to criminalise squatting!) at local and national level and we as a society are not doing enough about. I’m not claiming to have the answer or now be somehow enlightened after two nights in the street, but I do know that homelessness is an issue in desperate need of tackling.

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