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Who are the homeless? Stigma, confusion, misrepresention ...and deception?

The supplicants’ hands are outstretched as they patiently wait to be chosen by the soup run volunteers distributing food on the Strand. I stand and watch in the gloaming and see Barry amongst the crowd. My heart sinks. Thames Reach housed Barry four years earlier. ‘Whatever happened to the flat?’ I ask Barry after the opening pleasantries. Barry frowns with irritation and explains that he’s still got ‘the gaff’. I’ve plainly insulted him. ‘Well I can see the food’s good’ I continue, trying to make amends. But I’ve only succeeded in digging myself in deeper. Barry is moving from irritation to anger. ‘I don’t need the food’ he splutters, sending a shower of crumbs in my direction. We’re not homeless, we just come uptown for the crack’ (meaning conversation, not drugs). He waves his arm to indicate his circle of friends who look equally insulted at being considered ‘the homeless’. I skulk off before I find more than crumbs coming my way. Later, Barry comes to mind when I search ‘homeless’ on Twitter. One tweet says, ‘Sad to see so many homeless getting fed on streets of London’.

During the next week the conundrum of explaining who are the homeless returns to haunt me. I‘m meeting a supporter from one of the top auditing companies and he’s done his homework and looked up the government’s most recent quarterly figures on homelessness showing a headline increase of 17% in homeless acceptances between April and June of 2011. ‘Are these the guys on the street or in the hostels?’ he asks. I explain that this statistic refers to a different group altogether; mostly families with dependent children at risk of losing their accommodation who have a statutory right to housing. ‘So these are folks who have a roof over their heads and they have a right to housing and the people on the streets who haven’t got a roof, most don’t have a right to housing’. I nod, adding lamely, ‘it’s complicated’, feeling that, in terms of clarity of communication, this is not my best week.

The homeless person: a shape-shifter taking many forms. This includes the ‘hidden homeless’ person, usually described as sleeping on friends’ floors, ‘sofa surfing’ or squatting. I might have made a claim to being one of the hidden homeless when I lived in the most basic of short-life housing without any heating in the early 1980s. But I had been blessed with a loving family and a good education, I had a way out and ‘homeless’ would have been a false and condescending label. In the room above lived Dave who had been brought up in care. He was a dishevelled and mentally tortured individual. We knew his mental health was deteriorating when he painted all his bedroom windows green. When he painted his dog green too, he was reported to the RSPCA and the authorities became involved, culminating in Dave being transported to a psychiatric hospital. Although we lived in almost identical rooms, our lives as a result of random fortune were on different trajectories. I can accept Dave being described as homeless because his vulnerability had created for him severe housing instability. But this example only illustrates how homelessness often has little to do with literal place and everything to do with life chances.

For most of the public ‘the homeless’ still means those people who live on the street and the iconic depiction of the rough sleeper is a powerful fund-raiser that comes into its own in the run up to Christmas when most people look forward to spending time at home with their families and some, with consternation, wonder about those who can’t. So, in the last few weeks the advertisements have been placed and the leaflets produced as we all seek to raise funds in these bleak times. But there is a dilemma. Annual figures for London show that over half of the rough sleepers in the capital are not UK nationals. 28% come from countries such as Poland and Rumania who joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 respectively. The statistics paint a chilling picture of who is living long-term on our streets. 53% have a drink problem, 38% have a mental health problem, 39% have a drug problem and 41% have experienced prison. Our outreach teams report that significant numbers have complex immigration problems. Many from central and eastern Europe show a stubborn resistance to acknowledging that returning home is a better option than remaining in destitution in the United Kingdom.

In contrast, the images used by homelessness organisations rarely portray the contemporary composition of the street population. They more closely reflect the street population of the mid-1980s and as such are at least 25 years out of date. For example, pictures of teenagers are frequently used even though in London during the whole of 2010-11 only four young people aged 18 or under were found sleeping rough. It is occasionally suggested that some people, particularly the young, like to sleep in out of the way places or move around and can be missed, but this is unlikely as, these days, the street teams undertake outreach work in derelict buildings and on the night buses too.

The other common image is of the armed services veteran ignominiously left to fend for himself on the street. Again, the statistics over the last few years with remorseless regularity show that only around 3% of rough sleepers were in the UK armed forces, while a further 3% were in the armed forces of other nations.

It is perhaps understandable why charities use these essentially spoof images of rough sleepers. The young and armed forces veterans are the more palatable representations of homelessness and it is gratifying that their plight is regarded as an injustice that should be rectified. At Thames Reach we have used our own form of manipulation by occasionally putting a dog in the picture alongside the rough sleeper, mindful that a BBC poll in 2006 discovered that twice as many people felt sympathy for a homeless dog than for a homeless person with drug or mental health problems and justifying doing so on the basis that we accept dogs, with responsible owners, in some of our hostel accommodation. And let’s be honest, an image of a foreign national forced to live in disgusting conditions in a garage or shed, the actual reality regularly confronting outreach workers, is not going to bring in the donations.

But I remain troubled by the image of the homeless we project in 2011. To find the solutions to homelessness and specifically to rough sleeping we must understand who is homeless and why and engage honestly with the public, media, politicians and funders to find solutions that will end rough sleeping in this country once and for all. Creating this deceptive miasma, however justifiable it might be in terms of raising funds, begs questions about how determined we really are to end rough sleeping in all its ghastly 21st century forms. You, the shivering, plaintive figure on the streets swaddled in blankets; can we really afford to see you go?

A shorter, less personal version of this blog was published in Inside Housing magazine, 25th November 2011

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