UK: I went to Cambridge last week and street begging was noticeable. A guy in particular I remember. He had a white quilt over him and he sat by the Cambridge train station entrance. It was about 5 o'clock. He was eating, he was smoking. He looked quite healthy from a polite distance. I watched him for a few minutes and didn't think I saw anybody give him money. I chose not to talk to him, I wouldn't know what to say.
There was a young woman asking people for change nearby. About 23 years of age. She didn't ask me for money, so she must have recognized the person she spoke to.
Picture: Cambridge train station entrance (© Owen Dunn)
In the city there were a few sitting beggars too. One young woman had a dog and it barked as I walked past.
The one up from the sitting beggars are the Big Issue sellers. There was one guy who looked perfectly healthy. He hadn't missed a meal in ages by the looks of it. I wouldn't be surprised to find him down the pub. A shop worker bantered with him as she walked past him. One other Big Issue seller noticed me walk past a few times and laughed recognition. They seem like perfectly bright, articulate people. Why are these people doing this? I avoided eye contact.
So, what's up?
Why do people still sleep on the street these days?
I've done a little bit of reading. This list is in no particular order. And it's very complicated.
There are Faux Homeless / Drug Takers: The Cambridge police say that a significant number of people on the street are faux homeless – that is they use begging money to fund their addictions. The quote does not say what that 'significant' number is. Common sense tells me that there must also be many cases of people turning to substance abuse because of their homelessness.
Some of those sitting and begging are just plain fakes: One beggar boasted, according to Cambridge-news.co.uk, that he had made £250 on a day as he hopped into a taxi to go home to his wide screen TV. I have seen this elsewhere in the media, but was cautious about it because I think it was in the Daily Mail.
Various complex individual reasons: I read an excellent Varsity article that interviewed three street sleepers in Cambridge. One was a drifter, had been sofa surfing with friends and family for months, he just seemed to lack motivation to get a direction in life and now found himself sleeping on the street. One had serious mental health issues - she had burned down her last flat as part of a suicide attempt. One was a Slovakian who had alcohol problems – he lost his job after drinking too much after some bad news and then slipped through the social security net as he isn't a local.
Homeless.org.uk says 45% of homeless are diagnosed as mentally ill. 80% claim to have some sort of mental health issue. (All these figures out of 2590 respondents.) 77% smoke. Two thirds drink twice the amount of recommended alcohol each time. 73% said they had a physical health problem, with 41% saying it is a long term problem. 39% take drugs, or are recovering from a drug problem.
There is help available. A Cambridge council worker reportedly said it is sometimes difficult to get the homeless to accept help. Some don't want to change. They don't want to conform, to get a job like the rest of the non-homeless society. Without them wanting to change they will stay as they are. But, if 73% of them have a physical disability maybe they can't work. It's all a confusing nightmare. Even the employed sleep on the streets: I read reports that some people working in kitchens in Cambridge are street sleepers at night.
Should you give them money? Or help them?
There was a story recently where a couple of women agreed to pay for a hotel room for a homeless person. Clearly the room was not in the homeless person's name in this case and when it was wrecked the good people had to pay damages. So there is a risk in doing that sort of thing. A lovely gesture like that is expensive. Probably just giving the homeless money for a room wouldn't be much good either, can you get a hotel room with no address? I would guess not.
Giving the homeless money? How would this help? I have seen advice that you only give them food, or non alcoholic drink. This supposedly stops the addicted from buying drugs and alcohol. The only real help can be given by dedicated charities and government and councils. A pound coin here and there isn't going to do much. The homeless need a ceiling over their head. They need a fixed address to become a noticeable member of society. They need an address to get a job. I get the feeling 'There but for the grace of God go I?' and feel horrible.
I would do anything to not be homeless. For me to be homeless seems completely remote. I think that is why I was so upset by seeing it at such a level: Do these people want to sleep on the streets, or don't know what they want? Clearly some are like this, but what a nightmare if you have a physical disability and you can't work and so you slip through the social security net and have to sleep on the street. Are these people anti-socials - people who nobody can live with? What do you do to help those who can't be helped?
It's a depressing picture. Ultimately, it seems to me, the homeless individual has to want to change. They certainly need to want to accept help. To abide by the rules of polite society. To stop drug / alcohol abuse so they can function in society. They need to get a focus and, perhaps, selling The Big Issue is a start, however it doesn't seem that profitable a thing to do to me...
The Big Issue (Magazine)
The next step up from sitting beggars...? I saw three sellers of The Big Issue magazine in Cambridge on my day there. These are beggars with a bit of get up and go, I suppose, engaging with the crowd as the crowd walk past. (The Big Issue sellers are trained to not move too much as it is intimidating.) I saw one woman ask a seriously ill woman in a wheelchair if she wanted to buy a magazine. Thankfully she just let her roll away. They have a code.
How do you become a Big Issue seller? How much do they earn?
Selling The Big Issue seems to be a great idea, it provides the homeless with an opportunity to run a micro-business, I suppose. However the Big Issue Foundation itself is not a charity it is a profit making company. They employ professional journalists to write the content. The magazine has pitches that it hands out to homeless sellers who buy the magazine for £1.25 and sell it for £2.50 (May 2017). I have read that they sometimes get 10 (£12.50 profit) or 20 (£25 profit) copies to sell at a time. Doesn't sound much to me. The Foundation provides a counseling service to link sellers with vital support systems where required.
You qualify to be a Big Issue seller if you are:
Homeless or rough sleeping
In temporary accommodation
In danger of losing a home
Unemployed and facing financial crisis
Conclusion: It's so complicated. There is no one case here to solve. Every individual homeless case is different. Each has a different reason for being a street sleeper. A homeless person has to want to be helped to get help, and then be able to play along with the conditions of that help. If giving a pound or two makes you feel better, great, but the only real help can be given by well resourced charities and local government who need to get them inside at a fixed address so they can sort their lives out. But maybe they don't want to sort their lives out.
8th May 2017
A really good article by a woman selling the Big Issue in Cardiff: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/news-opinion/sold-big-issue-streets-cardiff-10828235
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