A quick definition of ‘homeless’ will tell you that it means to be “without a home, and therefore typically living on the streets”. Although the suffix may lead you to believe it is just that, the real answer is ambiguous and a lot more complicated. You do not have to be a wanderer of the streets in order to be considered homeless. It can range from sleeping in a bus shelter, to sleeping on a friend’s sofa, to living in a hostel. It encompasses people of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds.
I spoke to a 49-year-old man called Mark in the centre of Leeds about his experiences. Like many, a divorce and a job loss pushed him into the dark abyss of homelessness. Shelter, a homelessness and housing charity, emphasise the fact that you can be considered homeless even with a roof over your head. Mark has a flat but the condition of it is so poor that he avoids staying there, instead sleeping on a friend’s sofa and occasionally opting to sleep rough. Although to some being homeless is an alien concept, I was told it is not “the most difficult trap to fall into”.
He described an arrogance that he observes in the students who walk past him blindly on a daily basis, asserting that “they don’t know what life has in store”. This served as a kind of warning and it made me question life after the bubble of university has been popped by the sharp pin of the real world. It is often believed that students live in a kind of self-indulgent microcosm, but societies such as Homed raise awareness and allow students first-hand experience with issues such as homelessness. I spoke to a co-ordinator within the society who emphasised just how much visiting the hostels can open a student’s eyes to the harsh realities of homelessness and related issues such as alcohol and drug addiction and mental health problems.
There is a certain stigma about giving money to homeless people. A sign outside McDonald’s recently stated that the public should not give money to them, and that the company itself supports various homelessness charities. I was told by Mark that “professional beggars” are a myth. He said that most people begging outside our local shops have been abused or have suffered from a drug addiction and have no intention of cheating the public out of their pounds and pennies. He claimed that people should be allowed to make their own decisions about whether they want to give money or not. Would you sit on the streets for hours during the winter if you had a safe and warm home to go to? It is not a life that many would envy. Sat in Costa with Mark, he tallied up his earnings, so to speak, of the day and concluded that he was satisfied because it would buy him a bottle of Lambrini, a burger and a coffee.
The Big Issue Foundation offers homeless people a chance to rebuild their lives by earning a legitimate income. I spoke to a Big Issue seller on the streets of Leeds about the benefits of selling the magazine. The middle-aged man appeared comfortable in his role and said that he enjoyed it more than begging. However, he did add that beggars generally make more money. There is a sense of bitter injustice with this and it is not difficult to see why a conventional lifestyle seems so out of reach to people in this situation.
It is a rarity to see a young person sat on the pavements, imploring passers-by for money. However, homelessness amongst the young is a very real issue. The Big Issue seller informed me that, as a more vulnerable group, young people are more readily provided with accommodation and support. I visited Bracken Court with Homed, a hostel that provides accommodation for around 50 residents aged 16 and above, and interacted with a varied age group. A co-ordinator of the visit informed me that there has been a higher proportion of young people living in the hostel recently. He told me that “Homelessness in younger people is a growing issue due to the current economy and changes in the way benefits are received”. Another hostel, Seacole, helps young people in particular, and runs weekly events designed to prepare residents for when they live alone.
At Bracken Court, I spoke to a girl aged 20 and found it startling that she was the same age as me and many other students. She expressed great interest in re-sitting Maths and English at GCSE level. She addressed her own mental health issues and said that she would like help through counselling. It appeared to me that although she and other individuals have received practical help and advice, they are in need of more emotional support. Some of the young people at the residence are inclined to form bonds with each other, but this girl claimed she prefers to “keep herself to herself”. Whether self-inflicted or not, she seemed alienated, and the contrast between this isolation and the typical chaotic and buzzing student-life is very thought-provoking.
There seems to be different levels of homelessness: those with no place at all to sleep at the most severe level and those living in a hostel flat at the most progressive level. Whilst living in a hostel, the residents’ aim is to gain a council flat. After this, a job is the next desired goal. There are a number of steps which must be followed in order to get rid of the sometimes haunting homeless status.
I was told by a female resident at Bracken Court: “People who become homeless do not have enough self-esteem and confidence and this prevents communication”. This lack of confidence acts as an obstacle for those wanting to seek help, but who are too reticent to do so. This was the one person in particular I had met who seemed positive about their previous experiences and the future. A victim of domestic abuse, she stressed that people have to learn and explore life for themselves. To summarise with a motto of hers: ‘There’s never a tomorrow”.
Homed holds various weekly visits to local hostels, whereby co-ordinators and volunteers serve a hot meal and drinks. At Bracken Court, there is a friendly atmosphere with a mixture of residents to interact and engage with. The environment is not at all hostile and some residents eagerly anticipate the weekly visit and remember volunteers with fondness. Even participating in conversation and tea-making allowed me an insight into life at Bracken Court. Though only a bridge towards permanent accommodation, some of the occupants make close ties with each other and intend to maintain contact once they move elsewhere.
Students and the homeless could not seem more worlds apart. Money, however, is the one common woe and drain for both. Mark compared his situation to that of students living in poorly heated houses Although this is a very stark comparison to make, his sympathy appeared sincere. His use of the phrase “money is the root of all evil” was very poignant and it emphasised how a small money problem can mutate into something life-destroying. However, the various individuals I have met, young and old, male and female, have proven to me that no matter how unfortunate a situation seems, change is possible and it is through charities such as Homed, that this change happens.
words: Steph Muldoon
photo: Becki Bateman