Everyone knows that homelessness exists. We’ve all walked by a homeless person slumped on a greasy pavement in a city street. Yet, many of us are not actually aware of homelessness. Many of us don’t care; not really. We’re too busy being glued to our smart phones to look up and pay attention. And why should we concern ourselves? What can we do about it?
For a start, poverty is much closer than most of us think. Homelessness is not something elusive. If you think it can’t happen to you, think again. It can happen to anyone, including you - it really doesn’t take much. Anyone homeless will tell you so. An interval without employment, a missed payment, a twist of bad fortune, and we could all find ourselves homeless. This is why we should care. Surely, there is a dire need for greater awareness on the subject. Our current social system makes homeless people aliens. In reality, we are all human beings and none of us are invincible.
Last year, 112,070 people declared themselves homeless in England, a 26 per cent increase over the last four years, while the number of people sleeping rough in London increased by a confounding 75 per cent to 6,437, according to The Guardian. Homelessness is now at its highest level since 1997. A perceptible reason for this upsurge, particularly amongst those aged 16-24, is a huge lack of affordable housing, among other factors. Similarly, progressive cuts to housing benefit, wide-arching welfare reform, and a general increase in people suffering from drink, drugs and mental health problems, also play their part in conspiring to strip people of their homes.
The myriad of reasons behind homelessness are complex. Males often give substance misuse, relationship breakdown and leaving an institution such as care or prison as the main reason for ending up homeless. By contrast, single women largely cite fleeing a violent relationship or physical or mental illness as the cause of their homelessness.
In light of the snowballing numbers of people falling victim to homelessness, there have been calls for Britons to reconsider their views as to what being homeless actually is, in order to help homeless people and to dispel the stigma attached to their plight. It’s time to expel the myths about homelessness, including such common minsonceptions as: the majority of homeless people are rough sleepers; if you become homeless, you will automatically be housed; the numbers of homeless people are declining.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Homeless people are not uneducated; many have good jobs, but simply do not have accommodation. Homelessness is not black and white. It isn’t exclusively the product of a series of unfortunate events in the messy life story of a fifty-something drunkard who gambled his family and his fortune away. Rough sleepers equate to just a small fraction of the total homeless population. There are many forms of homelessness and there are many victims. As you read this, there are tens of thousands of homeless people across the UK who are living in hostels, and allegedly 380,000 “hidden” homeless adults today in the UK.
These are the people out of sight and out of mind, who subsist through squatting, sleeping in B&Bs, in cars, or on the floors and sofas belonging to family members or friends. An unprecedented rise in youth homelessness has led to the Catholic charity St Vincent de Paul Society UK seeing a 300 per cent rise in its service users over the last 12 months in some parts of England. Young adults are at great risk - 8 per cent of 16-24 year-olds report having been made homeless recently, and the number of young people sleeping rough has more than doubled in London in the last three years. As evidenced, many of our young people are being sentenced to lives of shocking poverty, financially crippled due to the spiralling cost of living and the surge in youth unemployment.
But, there are many excellent charities which we can donate to. People are being urged to give money to legitimate charities which can make a tangible, long-term difference in the lives of the homeless, rather than giving loose change directly to someone sleeping rough for short-term relief. UK charities such as Crisis, Shelter and Centrepoint help to rebuild the lives of thousands of people suffering from homelessness every year.
These charities primarily offer advice and help with housing and employment. Many organisations, crucially, run numerous courses in subjects such as IT and English, providing thousands of fresh starts. Giving to these worthwhile organisations and redefining our view of homelessness are the first steps to becoming more street smart. Homelessness is a pervasive plight, yet it remains stigmatised. The situation will only get worse before it gets better. Once we change our attitudes, we can begin to change lives.