Monday, 3 October 2011

A Rather Large Issue

Another human plight that gets my heart racing and my moral compass spinning is homelessness in the UK. It seems so utterly absurd that with all the resources, houses and people power we have in this country, fundamental human rights deeming one should have a home are so thoroughly and constantly in breach. And how can we ever hope to cap it? Numbers seem to be continually on the rise, with almost two thousand rough sleepers estimated on any one given evening last year in England, a staggering 42% increase from 2009 alone. However, more disturbingly, this number is misleading as it only counts the local authorities who chose to look into the issue within their constituency. The actual number of rough sleepers could be anything; in London alone, 3,674 people were counted on the streets in 2010, offering a grave reminder of how this problem is so flippantly overlooked by many areas of the UK, radically skewing the statistics.  Not to mention all those who were sheltered out of eyesight.

There seems to be a grave misunderstanding on the part of some individuals as to how people become homeless. I once heard one of my friends' dads say that homelessness was completely avoidable and that 'these people' were good for nothing scavengers with drug addictions. This stuck with me. As a young teenager walking through my small and provincial Dorset streets, the resident street sleeper who I'd come to recognise actually scared me. I was afraid of a person who was sitting on the floor, devoid of possessions, cupping their hands for money. Terrified, in fact. I joined the apathetic and awkward masses who would avidly gaze at the other side of the road, become obsessed with a crease in their top, become immersed at a text on their mobile phone. Of course, I am embarrassed but I wasn't to know any better. This is the kind of shit that was being pumped into me by the adults I looked to for guidance. I'm sure he wasn't aware that addiction is a serious and complex affliction that often stems from appalling neglect, abuse, depression or even a genetic tendency. I'm sure he wasn't aware that around 30% of homeless people have mental health problems and 21% don't have a substance addiction problem at all. I'm sure if someone alleviated him from his ignorance, he'd have felt awful for making such derogatory comments. Or not.

At the SUSU Environmental and Ethical Fair on Thursday, the local Big Issue representatives had a stall opposite our Back the Boycott one. As a friendly neighbour would, I moseyed on over for a natter and was so humbled and in awe from what they had to say. I've always known that the Big Issue is a fantastic publication and have bought several in my time - my favourite vendor is the Asian lady near International Foods in Portswood - but I had no idea how completely it could change peoples' lives. If like me you don't know how it works, I beg you indulge in a spot of research. For those who can't be arsed, I had no idea that when you bought the magazine, a pound goes to the vendor and a pound goes back into the production. I didn't know that the vendors are self employed. I didn't know that the Big Issue was a business just like any other. I didn't know that some vendors actually feel safer and more comfortable on the streets and wish to live a simple life without financial headaches. I couldn't have imagined how liberating the Big Issue is for homeless and home-vulnerable people. I didn't know that we are only ever two pay packets away from being on the streets ourselves. All I knew was that it was a great magazine with an ethos I could get on board with. One article I read recently was a vendor profile, detailing how the gentleman had found his way to the kerb. He had been a wealthy stockbroker with a big house and family. Your average middle-class 2.4 children jobby. When his business went bust, he felt like he had to protect his family from financial strife so he didn't tell anyone he was suffering. He went into work 5 days a week to maintain the appearance of normality, when really he didn't have anywhere to be or any work to do. The money frittered away as they continued to spend unaware, until the bailiffs knocked on their door. His wife was so horrified by their fairytale existence that she left, taking the children. The man grew depressed and desperate and when he lost his home he felt that he had nowhere to turn, terrified of losing his social footing by admitting his situation. He was homeless. It really can happen to anyone and at any time.

The next time you walk past someone selling Big Issues, if you don't already, maybe stop and buy one. They're only two pounds. It's not charity, it's not pity, it's not begging. You would be slowly but actively and constructively helping to resolve one of the biggest issues in our modern society, just by buying a magazine. While greed and snobbery breed - and now with government trying to make squatting illegal - homelessness is also going to plague a huge amount of people: we're all vulnerably housed. Plus, they're a bloody good read.