The last time you walked past a homeless person was probably not long ago. If you’re in a city, you will see homeless people most days. You’ll know they’re homeless because of their idleness, maybe a hand-crafted sign on corrugated cardboard that they’re holding, and possibly the fact that they asked if you have any spare change. Obviously you don’t. But you do.
My flaccid reason for walking past people on the streets is my unwillingness to donate to their potential harmful habits. Your mum probably tells you “It just goes towards drugs and alcohol anyway.” And maybe she’s right with that.
But having lied to homeless people too many times about my pocket finances, I was prompted to explore the world which seems so far away from our own. I spoke to campaigner Hugo Sugg, who used to be homeless himself, to gain an insight into what it is like to be on the other side; to be ignored by people enjoying their lives. It turns out that this terrifying world is not too far away from any of us.
What’s your homelessness story?
“I was homeless in 2008 when I was 18. I moved out of home when I was 17 to go live with my partner in Hereford. We dated for 8 months, in a pretty volatile relationship – I ended it and moved out of the flat we were in. I went to stay with an old friend of ours, however he was abusive towards me so I had to leave. I then got put on the waiting list for accommodation with a young person’s housing organisation in Hereford, SHYPP, but had to sofa-surf between friends and host families who volunteered to house the homeless.”
“When I was walking around each day because I couldn’t stay in SHYPP, Nightstop or the Library, I was calling people, going to the Council and trying to get food – I walked over the Wye Bridge to go to Asda. With the mentality and situation I was in, I thought it would be easier to jump into the murky waters below. However something stopped me every time… I had a warm feeling inside because I knew that my worker, counsellor and friends were there for me. My drive and determination to get better from this situation was what stopped me from ending it.
However there was a night that neither SHYPP, friends nor anyone else could help me. When I had nowhere to stay, I rung up Herefordshire Council to see if they had emergency accommodation for that night. The answer wasn’t just a simple ‘no – you’re 18, a single male and can fend for yourself. Go sleep under the bridge.’ To which I asked, in shock but determination, if they could provide a blanket, pillow and duvet for me – “no”.
I eventually got housed, and that’s when the mental, physical and emotional breakdown happened. This lasted for three-times the length of my actual homelessness – 9 gruelling and life-changing months. Homelessness is something that is scarred on me mentally – but I know now how to stop it from ever happening to that extent again.”
How did you escape it? What kept you going?
“Determination kept me going. Determination to get a house again and not cave in to pressure to go back home. I didn’t want to go back ‘home’ to my parents, even though they offered me somewhere to stay. This was mostly down to my own stubbornness. My friends at the time, and my support worker kept me going. My support worker was always there and allowed me to contact her whenever I felt down (which was lots of times). She gave me the supportive shoulder to lean on that I needed. I nearly jumped off the bridge and committed suicide, but then I knew I could get out of it – even if it was horrible.”
This is hot off the Campaign Press, and I am honoured to say that Diss. will have the first, exclusive insight into what I’ll be saying to her.
What is the biggest misconception about homeless people?
“The biggest misconception is the fact they seem to be another species. The stereotype is scruffy, in a doorway, dog, ragged beard and a can of lager… When in fact ANYONE can be homeless. Research suggests that only 10-15% of homeless people are rough sleeping – meaning that the other 85-90% are sofa-surfing, living in temporary accommodation or elsewhere.
There is a misconception that certain people from certain backgrounds are the ones to be homeless – but that isn’t true… Shockingly, it is predicted that 1 in 10 of us will be homeless at some point in our lives.”
Do politicians pay enough attention to homelessness?
“The answer to this is no. Homelessness isn’t on the top priorities for Government and this is a shame. My campaign aims to pick up the attention with the public though, and try and make politicians notice from the bottom-up, rather than the failed top-down approach.
The project National Youth Reference Group, which is funded by Government, facilitates a ‘Youth Homeless Parliament’ which meets with politicians and puts young people’s thoughts on homelessness and strategies to tackle it on the agenda.”
What is #HugosEarthquake and what are you trying to achieve?
“#HugosEarthquake started off as a blog about my experience of my homeless experience (www.hugosugg.wordpress.com) which gained a lot of interest. Media started noticing and I thought to myself “do I ignore this attention, or use it to make a difference?”
Through the Campaign, I am trying educate the general public, politicians and others who are interested in homelessness – about how best to support the homeless. My campaign has never said that it is trying to ‘end homelessness’, because I think that is unrealistic (for the moment at least!). It is trying to give homeless people a voice that many say they lose the moment they become homeless.”
If you want to give to homeless people and help them out – ask them what they would like, instead of assuming or throwing change.
You said you might be meeting the Prime Minister to discuss homelessness. What will you say to her?
“This is hot off the Campaign Press, and I am honoured to say that Diss. will have the first, exclusive insight into what I’ll be saying to her.I hope to meet with Theresa May, as well as Sajid Javid (Sec of State for Communities and Local Government) and say to them about the realities of being homeless, and battling through all the issues that I have mentioned above – as well as saying that societal values and opinions on the issue of homelessness need to shift, and can they do a joint press conference highlighting this.It is a fact, by the Government website, that the amount of households accepted as homeless and housed by the Local Authority (Council) in the UK has gone up by 13,590 since 2010 when the Coalition came in. That is down to a number of factors, but I would like Mrs May and Mr Javid to give me, and all the homeless people, an explanation from Government about why it has gone up, and what they will do to bring it down. Things like cutting housing benefits for under 25’s, the Right-to-Buy scheme and removing the youth service have all contributed to a rise in homelessness… And that simply isn’t good enough.
There are two sides to this coin: Government (money) and the public (societal views) & they have to work together. Most people only think throwing money at this Public Health Issue is the only answer, but I say not.
Finally, should we give change to homeless people?
“’Should we give change to homeless people’…. This question crops up all the time and it can cause controversy… If possible, I will change this question to ‘should we help out the street homeless?’My view, and the stance the Campaign takes, is ‘if you want to give to homeless people and help them out – ASK them what they would like, instead of assuming or throwing change’. The ‘if you want’ bit to that is really important, because everyone has busy lives and we are all guilty of walking past a person sitting on the streets and not giving them a ‘hello’ or food… But when you are able to help, I give you this answer.The reason for this is that homeless are still people. By just giving change, it can be deeply insulting to the homeless person because it invalidates their presence as a person, or their situation.
A lot of people give change and hope it gets spent on ‘the right things’, however there is always a danger that it isn’t spent on ‘the right things’. The reason for right things having quote marks is because what you think are priorities for the person, might not be the same as their priorities.This is where the controversy comes in… I say that it is really important to understand your motives behind helping someone who is on the streets. What I mean by this is, are you giving them money or food because you want to do something good, OR are you giving them money or food to help them, because they are in visible need? The first one is to meeting your ego, and the second one is giving help to someone who is in actual need and you are giving them what they’re on the streets for in the first place.
If you are willing to help a homeless person, for either purpose, the best advice I would give is to say hi to the person you want to help, ask them their name and say that you want to help them by getting them something. But instead of saying ‘I’ll go get you a cheese sandwich, orange juice and a sausage roll’, let them tell you what they want. Why? Because it gives them validation that you are treating them like a person, and also means you don’t get something they are possibly allergic to, for example.
I use the analogy that you wouldn’t walk into a cafe or restaurant and someone gives you a plate of food or drink because they assume you want it, but instead they give you a menu of choice and you decide.
If you ended up on the streets (statistically 1 in 10 will be at some point), put yourselves in the situation and think how you would want to be treated – and that’s how you should treat those who are already there.”
From speaking to Hugo, who spoke to ITV news recently about his campaign, it is clear that homelessness is a much bigger tree than I first imagined; the people on the street are just one branch of this.
It is inspiring to see that it is possible to make it out of such a grave situation, but there are many people who are in a position that Hugo was in who cannot escape. It seems that this is partly due to a lack of government policy focus, but also down to our own approach, as a public. When we walk past people on the streets, claiming we have no change, we are doing nothing to alleviate the cause of homelessness. But my belief is that if we simply drop some change into their basket and carry on, we are doing little more to help.
Homelessness is a structural problem. If we give them change without knowing what it is for, we are acting to alleviate our guilt rather than relieve this poverty crisis. This same calculus applies in reverse; the homeless person may rely on the short-term relief of our change that can resolve their short-term needs. To escape this cycle, we need to address homelessness as a structural issue; speak to them about what they need to move forward and donate to relevant charities that will spend the money in the right way.
“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”
Special thanks to Hugo Sugg for his words. If you want to follow his campaign, join at:
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Interview and words by Will McCartney