When I took up a volunteer position with Under One Sky, I thought it would just be an easy way to help some people out. I expected to spend a couple of evenings each week walking around central London, handing out food to grateful faces. I had it pegged as an excuse to get out of the house on cool nights, wrapped up in a warm fuzzy feeling.
But what I found was very different. What I found was an entirely new perspective of the homeless population in London.
I had my first clear glimpse of this new perspective when I was talking to one particular rough sleeper by Victoria station. He was a regular in the area and we chatted with him a lot. On this particular day he saw us from across the road, gave a broad wave and even broader smile, hopped off the pavement and jogged over to us. As he bounded up the pavement on the other side he motioned to another rough sleeper who I hadn’t seen, who was sitting against an electrical box a few meters to our right and in front of us, and asked him something I couldn’t hear. As our regular bounced up to us I handed him a ready packed bag of food and drink, and asked if he wanted one for his friend. He looked a little confused for a second and then smiled as he realised who I meant.
“Oh, I don’t know him” he said, “but we’re both on the street, so I wanted to help him out.”
What this experience taught me, along with many similar experiences during this period, is that the rough sleeper population is not just a group of individuals waiting for someone to hand them a sandwich. This is a community, and as such it is far more than the sum of its parts.
Before the lockdown, even those of us with the best intentions probably couldn’t count how many homeless people we passed each day in London. As we commuted to and from work, took trips to the pub or even just walked to the shops, we passed dozens of tattered cardboard signs, clinking coffee cups, and quiet faces. But what a lot of us forgot is that when the lockdown started, and we stopped making those trips, these people did not disappear. The homeless had nowhere to go.
As most of us know, people are put on the street by factors outside of their control, and the lockdown became another one of these to deal with. No one chose it, just as no one chooses addiction, mental health problems, abuse or bankruptcy. So, once people find themselves there, they find the best ways they can to survive. And like any community, they do this best when they do it together.
Undoubtedly, rough sleepers need some help for this. The hostels which offer rooms, the centres which offer support, the charities which offer supplies and, yes, the kind people who offer change in the streets, all provide very necessary services.
But within this framework, the community is stronger and more supportive than most people understand.
The challenges to this community are myriad. They need to work out where they can get food, sleep, shower and keep their belongings safe. Additionally, as with any group of individuals, they have their own personal hurdles. The backgrounds of rough sleepers I talked to stretched from the horrifyingly dramatic to the terrifyingly familiar. I could not fit them in to one article and I could not do them justice by trying. But the complexities of real life require complex solutions
So, the community help each other. They direct each other to the better hostels, support each other through mental (and physical) health crises, and bring new rough sleepers to where they can get free food. They learn things which those of us who never experience their world will never know; how to read the body language of dangerous people, the behaviours to look out for in people with specific mental health issues or under the influence of specific drugs, how to start a conversation with a random passer-by and how to form a connection with someone you have never met before.
It is this existing system of support which we tap in to when we provide supplies. We can give a rough sleeper food, but they choose whether they need it or whether they should pass it on to someone else. We can direct them towards hostels, but they decide whether it is safe for them.
And this support system helps us. Regulars learn our timings and pass them on to friends, they help us learn which supplies are more valuable to people on the street and they help form our routes by directing us to places they knew other homeless groups will congregate. We even discovered some specific needs we never expected, including a young man who wanted art supplies so he could spend his time drawing.
All of this helped me realise; we were not some saviours, coming in and lifting people out of destitution with the manna we handed down from our IKEA bags. We were simply one element of a much larger system.
This experience taught me a new way to engage with rough sleepers.
By giving a homeless person change, you are not some deity raining saviour down upon them. And, when you withhold change because “they’ll only spend it on drugs”, you are not some benevolent saint saving them from corruption. Both of these misconceptions assume that the homeless person in front of you is powerless, and that the cash you can offer gives you some staggering power over them. And that’s not true.
Instead, we should understand that these people are already working hard to help themselves and their friends, through the community of support which they built and maintain. It’s no surprise that when rough sleepers get off the street, so many of them volunteer and work at the services which helped them. Former rough sleepers work at shelters, become drug or abuse counsellors, and volunteer with organisations like Under One Sky.
If we understand this, then we can contribute in ways which are far more effective than simply giving spare change. When you meet a rough sleeper, ask what they actually need. A sandwich or coffee could go further than a couple of quid. A cheap pair of Primark gloves can be a life saver in the winter. You could even discover a specific need you never expected.
Just as important is contributing to the organisations which are already providing crucial services. Donate to the charities with the expertise to feed, house and support rough sleepers; or, even better, volunteer with them.
Make your contribution count.
For now, below is a list of organisations which I have encountered, and which I think are doing particularly vital work with the UK homeless population. Please consider donating to them, or volunteering with them.
· Under One Sky — https://www.underonesky.cc/
· St Mungos — https://www.mungos.org/
· JustUs — http://www.justus.org.uk/
· The Passage — https://passage.org.uk/
· Crisis — https://www.crisis.org.uk/