The number of young people who are homeless in the UK is still very high, with numerous schemes throughout the county to try bring this figure down. This week LS talks to a current Leeds student who was previously homeless and finds out how easy it is to come to be homeless.
Public attitude is one of the biggest challenges that homeless people face, on top of the struggles of living a hand to mouth existence on a daily basis. Last week, STAR society organised a sleep-out on the steps of the University Union in solidarity with local charity, Simon on the Streets, hoping to change public perceptions about homelessness. Not all individuals who find themselves living on the streets are drug addicts or mentally ill. A person can become homeless frighteningly quickly for a variety of reasons. At the sleep out I spoke with a student, who I’ll refer to as Rob, about his experiences of homelessness prior to University.
“I decided to take part in the sleep out partly due to a sense of duty and because I’m sure there are other people in the same situation I was in. I was just waiting to get into university before I ended up on the streets. I want to destroy that idea that homelessness is just for criminals and drug abusers. It can happen to anyone.
“When it first happens to you, you feel really shocked. No-one thinks they’re ever going to face homelessness. It’s true that when coming across people in the streets you generally think that their situation is entirely their own fault and you’re conditioned into having a negative perception of them. There’s just a complete lack of regard for that person as an individual or what might have led them to end up as they are.”
A very fixed idea of homelessness exists in our society, mainly that homeless people are substance abusing scroungers who beg on the streets. A combination of a poor economic performance resulting in mass redundancies, governmental fixation on benefits cheats and the media often vilifying the most vulnerable members of society has not helped to deconstruct this already very rigid stigma.
“You don’t ever reflect on how someone has become like they are or what they’re like as people. It’s just a completely dehumanised thought process. I’ve found that the main cause for people to become homeless is generally due to relationship breakdown, whether it’s family, friendship or with a partner. There were so many people I met who had abusive parents, or were in a relationship with someone who cheated on them and ended up with nowhere to live. It’s primarily a breakdown in communication and this makes you very paranoid. I found my ability to trust and open up to other people has been shattered to this day.”
The current attitude held by both the public and the media has a damaging effect on the homeless themselves. Rob found the overwhelming effect of opinion towards his situations equally as bad as daily existence on the streets itself. “Half the battle is your own warped self-perception, negative thoughts that lead you down into depression. It’s the feeling that you’re worthless, that what everybody thinks about you is right and that you’ll never get out. I started suffering from things like insomnia and anxiety. You see people retreating into drugs or serious depression due to their negative outlook, which is a vicious circle.”
Rob’s story is one of many examples of how those on the street spend every day living in disparity. The complete erosion of identity, alongside hostility from all levels of society, is part of what leads people to turn inward and fall into depression or substance abuse. Fortunately, his experience did not follow this route.
“The most part of the process came mentally. I just had to really change the way I was thinking, to create a clear goal and then just move towards it, no matter what it took. I had to find work, I was in a lot of debt. I managed to find someone who kindly let me register my address as the Job Centre, meaning that I could start applying for work through agencies, even though it took some months. I didn’t lapse in to feeling sorry for myself, I wouldn’t permit it. It was difficult because often you can’t afford to feed yourself and you have to do this on basically no sleep in dangerous environments.”
Despite the intense feeling of isolation that came with being cast out onto the streets, Rob found a sense of solidarity with some other members of the homeless community.
“I had one night where I shared food with a former university professor whose partner threw him out. Other times people have shared their last scraps of food with me. You have to be motivated. I surrounded myself with people who are trying to achieve the same goals as I was. If you were lucky enough to find like-minded people, there was a collective push to get out of the situation.”
Through a combination of enormous mental strength and surrounding himself with positive people, Rob was able to piece his life back together again and, ultimately, find work before making it to University.
“What I like about Simon on the Streets is that they’re changing the perception of homeless people, challenging the social stigmas. They’re genuinely interested in people and don’t receive government funding, operating as an independent charity. I also really admire their Blue Plaque Project which celebrates the achievements and talents of individual homeless people in places where they were known to sleep rough”
Staying true to his experiences of homelessness, Rob tried to recreate his previous circumstances as accurately as possible during the sleep out, feeling that bringing mountains of duvets and hi-tech thermals would be disingenuous.
“I have some gloves with me and some additional coats and scarves in case it gets too cold. Also, things to help socialising like a deck of cards. These are the things I had with me when I was actually homeless. Everybody had these, just practical items to keep you warm along with some things to help you to pass the time, to keep the mind active. I learned a lot of magic tricks.”
The student sleep out, alongside the work of the numerous charities involved, presents a real opportunity and willingness to change the outdated and erroneous view that our society holds of the homeless. Every person’s life is full of both complexities and troubling personal issues that can lead to compromising situations.
This is in no way different for the United Kingdom’s homeless community. Activities such as the sleep outs and awareness events organised across the country should highlight that, often, people are robbed of their lives through unfortunate circumstance and there is little to no framework for them to be helped back into society. Rob was able to do this alone despite the odds stacked against him, however, this is not the case for many other helpless individuals who find themselves part of a vilified underclass and the enemy of an unsympathetic public with no feasible way out. Events such as this illustrate how our society is prone to turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged and should encourage young people into realising that, with a little considerate restructuring on our behalf, members of our generation could avoid being condemned to the same fate.
Image courtesy of Becki Bateman