Just before Christmas I bought a copy of The Big Issue from a seller. I went in to the deli behind him to buy a present for a friend and while queuing to pay I decided to buy a sandwich for him. I chose a festive turkey and cranberry one, and gave it to him with a smile as I left.
At least that was the plan.
What actually happened was that as I held it out to him he rolled his eyes and said he didn’t eat turkey, and asked me to go back into the shop and get a refund so he could choose something different. The experience was awkward and embarrassing, and I walked away feeling I’d been insensitive in not giving him the opportunity to choose the flavour he’d like, or even checking if he happened to want a sandwich at all. Gaaaah.
I’ve felt concern about the issue of homelessness for a long time. When I was a student I wrote to the Prime Minister of the time asking why - in our wealthy and stable country - there could possibly be an article in The Big Issue advising readers that a baked potato could not only be nutritious but also a good source of warmth to a rough sleeper on a freezing night.
But beyond that I haven’t done very much. I’ve followed other causes and responded to other needs, but in terms of the homeless living in my city I’ve done little apart from turkey-sandwichgate.
Homelessness is on the rise, and increasingly, painfully visible. Government figures report that rates have increased by 40% in the last five years alone.
Life on the streets is dangerous and can be deeply damaging, both physically and emotionally. Life expectancy for homeless men is 47. For women, it’s a shocking 43. That’s how old I am, and I feel like I’ve hardly even started.
The issue is also complex. Its causes are manifold and inter-dependent: traumatic life events, mental health issues, addiction, a lack of affordable housing, insecure jobs, debt, poor physical health, family or relationship breakdown, movement on from institutional living such as prison, the armed forces or the care system.
Many of us care about homelessness and the people who find themselves homeless. But when people are struggling with deep-rooted, heart-rending problems like these it can be hard to know what to say, or how to be properly helpful.
My local council ran an ad campaign recently called ‘Killing with Kindness’, discouraging members of the public from giving money to people on the street. It explained how responding to a request for cash can potentially do much more harm than good as it sustains life on the streets rather than encouraging people to access available support.
Combine this uncertainty about how best to respond with busy-ness, lack of experience, embarrassment and a range of other demands on our time and thoughts, and the result is often inaction. We get stuck - not sure how to help, feeling bad when we don’t respond, and bad sometimes when we do.
Effective and sustainable solutions are urgently needed. Many organisations are doing excellent work to deliver this, including ACT (Aldates Community Transformation), an innovative Oxford-based charity which is working to build a community where homeless people, prisoners and ex-offenders can find the acceptance, support and opportunities they need to flourish. They offer mentoring, life-skills courses and accommodation with specialist support in three houses.
Their Meet at the Gate project provides an intensive programme of support to people leaving prison, including assistance finding accommodation, a community pack with daily essentials, help making connections to other services, and daily and subsequently weekly mentoring in order to support ex-offenders at a critical time to make a positive transition into life outside prison.
Between them, the ACT team have years of experience, learning and expertise, and the fruit of it is clear in the stories of lives turned around. Like Dean, who after years of dealing and violence now says, ‘Thinking about the way I had treated my family and friends before, I realised I was like a beast. Now I want to be different, I want to be a man.’
But what can our role be as members of the public rather than experts or specialists?
More than you’d think. Your skills, time and energy can make an invaluable contribution. And this doesn’t just apply to those who are time-rich. Opportunities for getting involved are flexible and creative and can fit around existing commitments in already busy lives.
There’s Amanda, the dentist, who gives up a few hours a week to cook with ACT members in one of the supported houses, sharing her love of good food and knowledge of how to prepare it.
There’s Claire, who commutes to London for her civil service job but spends one Sunday lunch-time a month at the Community Meal hosted at St Aldates church, where the invitation is extended to all who are hungry to come and eat, talk and build connections with each other.
There’s Jamie who works in sales and has been trained in mentoring, who is about to start regularly meeting with an ACT member to share coffee and conversation, and encourage and invest in his personal development.
If you are interested, whatever the time you have available or the skills you can draw on, I’m pretty sure there’s a place for you at a local organisation working with homeless or vulnerable people.
It is wonderful to see what happens when people who have known little but pain, rejection and insecurity get to feel part of a safe and inclusive community, when they receive the investment, support and love that may have been missing all their lives.
And what am I doing? I’m avoiding sandwich selection and concentrating on writing. I’ve just started volunteering with ACT to help spot, capture and share stories of change so that more of us know how to help address a huge and complicated issue in a way that means individual people feel their lives are worth living.