The first of my Guest Bloggers is my wonderful friend Megan who has been doing something incredible over the Christmas period. She decided to volunteer at Crisis which is a national charity for single homeless people. Below is a piece from her which talks about her thoughts on homelessness, why she decided to volunteer and what she gained from it!
Homelessness – It’s not going to change – but your views can.
Rewind four years, I am newly graduated with my masters in pharmacy about to start my training year at an NHS hospital. I have just moved to Canada Water, East London with three other graduates from the University of Bath (one pharmacy and two economics) plus one politics graduate from Newcastle University whom I had never met. Young, ambitious, naïve and ever ready for a hearty debate – perhaps a recipe for disaster when moving in with a politics graduate arguably more argumentative than myself!
The topic for debate on this particular night is the homeless. Benefits, job seekers allowance, food banks were all handed out by our government like sweets – right? That was the picture I had painted from various comments made by my network of friends and family, from the documentaries on TV and my working class family upbringing. So I confidently argue my case that there really is no excuse to be homeless in this country. Now I suspect the privately educated, politics graduate then working as a tax broker in the city shared my right winged views on this topic. But that wouldn’t make for a stimulating evening of heated discussions and so he (dis-) honourably argued otherwise of which, if you ask me, he did for arguments sake on most occasions.
Fast-forward one month from this and I am sitting outside Paddington underground station in my lunch hour with a box of homemade chocolate cupcakes topped with cream cheese icing and pink glitter with a homeless man making polite small talk. What I really want to ask is ‘why are you homeless’, ‘what’s your story’, ‘what do you do all day’, ‘do you drink, take drugs’, ‘are you at least trying to get a job’?
What exactly gave me the audacity to think I could make a bunch of cupcakes and ask these invasive questions to a complete stranger is beyond me. After the great homeless debate of Canada Water I made it my responsibility to go out and hear it from horse’s mouth itself. Thankfully my boldness quickly dispersed on approaching this man sleeping under a filthy blanket, using a suitcase packed with, quite literally, everything he owned as a pillow. We talked and he spoke a little about how he ended up on the streets. It was a few years ago and the questions I probed, how I phrased them and his responses are now a distant memory. A more vivid memory, however, was his fellow homeless companion, returning from what appeared, judging by the collection of crumpled brown Burger King take away bags she was carrying, to be a bin rummage for food shouting all means of abuse at me. I shook the man’s hand, left the cupcakes with him and returned to my secure job.
The point is I was willing to accept that perhaps there was a bigger picture to people living on the streets than lazy alcoholics. Oh crap! – I was less willing to accept that my housemate had perhaps won on this particular occasion. Well almost – After all, I had gone from having strictly no sympathy for the homeless to at least sitting on the fence, or in this case the streets, as to whether they are all just lazy alcoholics.
Fast forward to Christmas 2015 and I am volunteering at a rough sleepers centre with Crisis. The centre is buzzing it quite literally is a fine tuned operation, receiving deliveries of clothes, blankets, food, dental and medical supplies, and mattresses. People had given their time to volunteer over Christmas in order to bring warmth, shelter, nutrition and kindness – oh so much kindness – to homeless people for seven days over Christmas.
If my mind hadn’t already been opened enough to the ever-growing complicated picture of homelessness it would be after the training. At the training I learnt all manner of facts about the homeless (web link found here) – becoming redundant and thus missing mortgage repayments is not fixed by simply signing up on the doll and getting a council house. On any one night there are an estimated 2,744 people sleeping rough across England alone, with a total of 7,581 people in London during 2014/15. There is a massive short fall of council houses and due to the strict rationing many people without dependent children cannot access social housing.
During my time at the centre I gave manicures to grown men – I am no beautician and I have only ever received one professional manicure in my life but ad-libbed with the utensils and creams available. There were chess games, massages, arts, crafts – of course none of this is of use to a homeless individual – after all where will they hang the painting? But it created an environment of caring for one another and an opportunity to share stories.
During the three hours or so I spent attempting to cut grown men’s nails with nail clippers resembling those found inside a Christmas cracker, I met people from Lithuania, Romania, Russia, Italy and of course London. Some read story books to me as a means to improve their English, one man explained how he used to be a chef at a well know Italian chain and then it closed down – his English is poor and now he is struggling to find another job. One painted the most beautiful scenic oil painting of mountains in Romania, his home land. One disjointedly told me all sorts of interesting places to go across the UK from his days driving haulage vehicles – he had been in care throughout his childhood. He was English – so why the disjointed conversation? He was also arguing with an imaginary person sitting to his left. He is 57. The average life expectancy of someone living on the streets is 47.
My last shift with Crisis was a night shift on the very last night the centre would be open. I cried during my walk from the station to the centre. I felt solemn. These people were no longer strangers on the street. They were humans, they laughed and joked held conversations just like my friends and my colleagues. Yet I often overlook these people in my society. After tonight they will no longer be able to sleep as deeply as they did here, with volunteers looking over them like “guardian angels” (to quote the guests themselves). No longer be able to have a shower every day, walk around without shoes on, clean shave, have their hair cut or be so efficiently served (if I do say so myself) a delicious meal by me!!
My initial thought during the four hour training session earlier that month was would the money not be better spent if spread out over the year rather than blowing it all on Christmas? Maybe cut out the luxuries like chocolate, cake, nail polish, ping pong tables and invest it in something more sustainable. But now, having been a part of this wonderful experience, I whole heartily believe it could not have been better spent and the guests armed with clean clothes and news shoes I am sure agree. It wasn’t hard work, it wasn’t me just trying to do a good thing during the festive period – it was a bunch of people coming together and spending quality time talking, smiling and relaxing – exactly what Christmas is all about. Will I do it next year? Absolutely! And I’ll be taking more time off work so I can do more shifts. And now as I search for volunteer projects to get involved in during the rest of the year I discover that many of these homeless shelter organisations were able to take a well-deserved break over Christmas because Crisis has taken on their work loads.
Now in the present day I realise I am in no place to pass judgement on how someone becomes homeless and whether he or she deserves my pity, aid or time. I never had any right to sit down four years ago with the homeless man at Paddington and unearth his painful past. The picture is messy, complex and there is no quick fix. There are refugees, the unemployed, domestic abuse victims, mental health sufferers, alcoholics, ex-army and yes some “playing the system” (one guest openly informed me how he wasn’t homeless as such but unless you claim or show to be so you aren’t ever going to be a priority on the ever growing social housing list). Each of them are fighting a battle – if I chose to buy someone a coffee or a sandwich and sit and drink it with them I will do so as an impartial (airing on concerned) passer-by (airing on friend) and I most certainly will not be ‘means assessing’ them!