Last week I was out and about doing some Christmas shopping. As I walked through the busy Oxford streets, just one of many people with thoughts of the busy time ahead, I noticed several homeless people huddled in doorways, some completely cocooned inside sleeping bags. I wondered if the person inside felt that the harsh outside world would disappear if they shielded themselves from prying eyes and the reality of their situation. I also wondered why these people preferred to sleep during the day but then I realised it probable felt safer – maybe there was less likelihood of being attacked or abused during the day. Like everyone else, I walked on past the homeless people. Sadly it is a common occurrence to see people living on the streets.
But then, later in the day, laden with shopping bags and having been lucky enough to enjoy lunch in a restaurant, I was approached by an elderly man asking for help. He tried to sell me a scruffy scarf saying it wasn’t glamorous but it was all he had to offer in exchange for some money. He said he hadn’t eaten since the day before. He was disheveled and looked desperate. He was polite and softly spoken. I looked into his eyes and saw despair and so I gave him enough money for a sandwich and a hot drink. I like to think he did use the money for that. I hope he did as I know a meal was what he needed the most. Whatever happened, I made the choice to give.
This year we seem to have the highest number of homeless people on our streets than we have seen for many years. Something is terribly wrong. What makes us get used to seeing people desperately needing help and a roof over their heads as part of everyday life? For those of us with our heads in the sand, it is time to look at the facts – being homeless can happen to any of us – a bad sequence of events can cause almost anyone to be caught up in a devastating spiral of loss.
Causes of homelessness are : poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor physical or mental health, addiction, family and relationship breakdown, and violence or abuse. Low wages and irregular work can cause someone struggling on benefits to slip badly into arrears with rent and have no means to keep themselves solvent. People once able to cope see themselves uses food banks to keep themselves and their families fed.
I have heard it said that homeless people deserve to be on the streets and that they are all drug addicts or alcoholics. I have even known people question why so many homeless people have dogs – surely they can’t be that badly off? But a loving pet can be a lifeline when living without a home and social support. Remember, over 80 per cent of people are ‘between homes’ in most cases the individual had the pet while living in a previous home and wants to continue caring for it. Homelessness can be very isolating and pet companionship is known to help people feel happier and live longer.Maybe too, a homeless person will feel more protected with an animal by his or her side.
Most of the time, drink and drugs is not the cause of homelessness some may turn to drink and drugs as a way of coping with their desperate situations and who can blame them? There are hidden aspects to homelessness; it’s not just people sleeping in a shop window, but families floating from hotel room, to couch or B&B each night.
There are many issues that need to be resolved before we will see real change for the better, and before living on the streets will be a thing of the past. As we all know, our political system is in total disarray – logical thinking seems to have gone out of the window – but here are ways we can all help to make a difference:
1. See people not labels.
2. Contact an organisation like the Salvation Army if you are worried about someone you see sleeping rough.
3. Make a donation this Christmas to one of The Homelessness Services. You can visit the Salvation Army page.
4. Reach out for support if you are worried for a family member.
It is amazing to think that billions of pounds are being spent on a high-speed railway in the UK, with preparations for this bulldozing their way through the country at a time when poverty is a serious problem…..I could go on…..
I am lucky, very lucky, to have a roof over my head this Christmas and good food on my table. I am blessed with the love and companionship of family. I am enjoying all the preparations for the week ahead. However, as the wind howls outside my door and the rain beats down on the roof, I cannot help but think of the lonely man with the haunted eyes who crossed my path for a moment. He had a life once.