Listening to the homeless

Photo by Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Photo by Albert Bridge (Creative Commons licence)

At around 11pm a few nights back I was walking through the centre of Bath when I encountered a woman and her dog sitting on a blanket next to a hat containing some small change. I did what I usually do when I encounter such people, which is acknowledge them and walk on, reminding myself that I can’t give money to every beggar I pass, and I do regularly donate to charities that work with the homeless.

However this time, having walked on a few yards, I stopped and returned. I had just come from a party where I had been talking to some extremely wealthy people, and I am not exactly hard up myself. Life works out nicely for some of us and not so well for others, but when all’s said and done, we’re in it together. I dropped a couple of pounds into her hat and apologised for my rudeness. No, she said, Don’t apologise – it’s nice to just get a smile. And so I listened to her story.

She was born in Bath but her parents died when she was very young, and she didn’t go into who had actually brought her up. Nevertheless, as an adult she managed to get a job that she enjoyed doing, and even buy a house of her own. However, sometime later she was made redundant and began to fall into arrears on the mortgage. Despite applying for over 100 jobs she was unable to find work, and then the bank repossessed her home. With no income and no relatives to take her in, she became homeless.

Being homeless means being without a home address, which makes it much harder to find work, and much harder to use the services that we take for granted. She took her predicament to the local social services office, where she was asked to supply a home address. Unable to do so, they asked where her parents lived. Hearing that her parents were no longer alive, they asked where she was born and then, claiming she was therefore Bath’s responsibility, they gave her a one-way train ticket.

Arriving in Bath she once again went to social services with her story. Eventually, after a number of meetings, she was told that she had been given inaccurate information, and that Bath could not accept responsibility until her case had been sorted out. With no money and no address, she had no choice but to beg.

She told me that the homeless shelter charges £5 a night, while other hostels, such as the YMCA, charge £15 to £16, so unless she has collected that sort of money by the end of the day, she sleeps on the street. Yesterday she only collected 86p, but that was a particularly bad day. She would like to sell the Big Issue but she told me that you have to pay for the jacket, and buy the magazines themselves. Once you’ve done that you can make the money back within a few hours, but you still need to pay up front.

Begging is in fact illegal in this country, but she said that the police have been very kind to her, turning a blind eye and checking on her periodically to make sure she’s all right. She’s grateful for the care and understanding they’ve shown.

Some of you reading this may wonder at my gullibility in believing this woman’s story. However, having talked to her, I suspect that any inaccuracies are due to her misunderstanding rather than any attempt to mislead. She exhibited no signs of drink or drugs, although I suspect she looks old for her age. Yes, there probably are shelters that would take her in for free, at least for a few days, but only if they have the room and the funds. Checking its website tells me that the Big Issue does support first-timers with free issues, but she doesn’t have that luxury.

And in any case, why would someone sleep on the streets if they didn’t have to? She seemed willing and able to work, but would you employ someone who had no home address, and only the clothes they stood up in? Particularly if the next applicant is an immaculately dressed school-leaver from a nice part of town?

I hope that next time I walk down that street she is not there, because someone has found the time and the resources to give her a helping hand. However I suspect that she will be, or in her place there will be not one but two or three homeless people, some just down on their luck, others with mental problems or drug addictions that the local services do not have the resources to cope with.

There is really only one solution to this, which is to give such people the support they need until they can stand on their own two feet and start repaying the favour by earning a taxable income. However this government seems determined to ostracise and demonise them until we no longer think of them as human, and where that solution finally takes us doesn’t bear thinking about.

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