Crouched over in a bus stop we find him, barely able to stand due to the pain of his leg. Someone set fire to his sleeping bag, he tells us, and the result is a great, awful gash on his puffy, swollen leg. I hand over a sandwich, a measly offering for someone in such desperate need of help, but it’s something, I tell myself.
“You need to go to the doctor,’’ I urge, sure that once there he’d receive all the necessary medicine and help to not only save his leg but perhaps get himself a little more security. But then comes the shocking truth. “I’ve been,” he says, the pain visible in his eyes, “but I can’t afford the prescription… £9 for someone without benefits, and because I’m a rough sleeper I can’t even apply
for them… there’s no option for someone with nothing.” The disbelief I feel is unreal. “How?”, I think to myself, “how on earth can this happen?”, yet this isn’t even the end of his story. Due to the open wound, he can’t even sleep at St Mark’s Crypt. It’s understandable due to the potential impact it could have on the health of other residents, but again all I can think is “How?!”
This is not the fault of one person, or one charity, but a systematic failing to those perhaps most in need of assistance. Despite Leeds having a much lower rough sleeper count than other major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham, with 28 people being counted in 2017 in comparison to Manchester’s 94, this is still a very significant number of people facing intensely difficult circumstances. Furthermore, this number has grown incredibly when compared to the six rough sleepers counted in 2010 – a 367% increase – and in the last twelve months before the publication of Leeds City Council’s Homelessness & Rough Sleeping Strategy for 2019-2022, six rough sleepers were known to have died in Leeds.
There are systems in place of course, and Leeds does have a fairly substantial number of charities looking out for those without homes, such as St Mark’s Crypt, Simon on the Streets, St Anne’s and Emmaus. Additionally, the Homelessness Reduction Act of 2017 put a greater responsibility on local councils to both prevent and relieve homelessness, in conjunction with pre-existing statutory rehousing duties… but surely this is not enough if we still have people unable to afford critical treatment for open wounds. Not only that, but I would have thought that the provision of drugs to those particularly vulnerable to substance abuse would be something carefully monitored and overseen by the NHS; to ensure both a full recovery and to prevent addiction.
At the root of this is the government’s systematic refusal to confront the needs of a welfare state, including proper funding for the NHS, and this is something that cannot be overlooked when the election comes around. But there is also something to be said about small acts of kindness; for the man we spoke to, just being acknowledged, being seen as a human was so important. He thanked us and hugged us goodbye after we helped to pay for his prescription. It was of little detriment to us, but I think sometimes compassion, and openness to what may at first scare us, can go a long way.
Image Credit: The Week UK