I had a mad moment at work today- one of those moments when you have to take a deep breath, count to ten and remind yourself that you’re one of the good guys; you are working to do as much as you can to help people who end up sleeping rough, but you’re working within an imperfect system.
I volunteer for a homelessness charity in South London, and on Mondays I head up to the local salvation army centre which runs a drop in centre once a week. They provide people who are living rough with a warm meal, tea and coffee, a chance to have a hot shower (an absolute luxury if you’re homeless), and a change of clothes. All of this is run by volunteers, and a few full time salvation army staff who are always on hand for help and advice.
The charity I work with sets up a table there for an hour and a half, so that we can take referrals. “Referral,” is the first step in the process which people have to navigate through before they can be brought in and off the streets, into a hostel or a shelter, and then assigned support workers who will work with them to find more permanent accommodation and then hopefully jobs and other meaningful occupation.
This referral stage is the first step. Next, we take the names and details of the people back to our offices and put them onto our database; and the most important details here (after obviously name, age, nationality and brief background details) are mobile number and sleep site. Once we have a detailed description of where they bed down, a location to actually find them, we can go out on an outreach shift and “verify” them.
This “verification” stage is crucial; we cannot work with people who have not been actually verified by staff at our organisation as currently being homeless, and that means that they must be currently sleeping rough out on the streets, and someone from our team must go out at night and find them that way. We cannot simply take their word for it and start working with them straight away.
This is because there is such demand for housing, and so many people who ‘may be at risk of becoming homeless’ or who are sofa surfing for whatever reason, that we simply don’t have the accommodation or the capacity to work with all of them; to help all of them. We have to assume that a lot of people may tell us they are homeless, in order to get a room and some kind of accommodation; when the reality is that they’re kipping on a friends floor, or a worried they might get evicted because of trouble with the landlord.
We need to make sure that we are finding and helping the most needy, and the most vulnerable; so we need to have this process of actually finding the people who are referred to us as actually sleeping rough out on the streets right now, before we can take them in and give them a bed.
This system makes sense. The rationale behind it is sound, and the problems are real and so large that they cannot be managed by our charity, or the sector alone- heck the government doesn’t even seem to know how to deal with this problem and how to find the money to supply the kinds of cheap and suitable housing which is required.
There is already a general housing crisis in the UK, without beginning to contemplate housing all those people who don’t have any kind of roof above their head.
The system makes sense.
However, when you are facing a 60 something year old man on the verge of tears, who is telling you that he is alone, scared, broke and despairing; and is asking you for help, you the person he has been told will help him– it doesn’t seem to hold much which sounds sensible.
When you have to tell him to go back out, go back out onto the streets and wait for one of the team to come and find him- in that moment the system doesn’t seem to make any sense, in fact the system seems as irrational, and senseless, as telling that man to simply find a bigger cardboard box and pray for sunshine.
It takes guts, in my opinion, to meet the eyes of somebody in that situation. To meet the eyes of someone who is cold, vulnerable, despairing- and then tell them to just sit tight, just wait, basically, for someone to show up. This man was clearly near breaking point; he got upset and cried out “why can’t you help me, I’m here and I’m telling you I’m homeless; why can’t you help me now?”
I had to explain the system; I explained the reasoning and gave him some numbers- he looked at me like I wasn’t human, like I was opening and shutting my mouth and the only thing coming out was noise. Ultimately, he was telling me he was homeless and needed help, and I was telling him to prove it. He couldn’t comprehend me, he looked at me through crestfallen, disbelieving eyes.
It was horrendous, and in that moment I felt the gaping reality of the situation hit me; the injustice of the fact that old men like him are forced to sleep rough in a first world society; a society which claims to be civilised, and developed. It’s a joke. Though not for this man- for him it’s a nightmare.
Moreover, when we tell these people that we will come out and find them we cannot even specify when; we’re not allowed to because we can’t guarantee dates and times. This man asked me, “will it be tomorrow? will it be in the next couple of days? will it be in the next week?” I had to say to him, “I’m sorry, I can’t guarantee when we will come out, but we will come out as soon as possible.”
Imagine sitting out in the freezing cold, night after night in the dark and the squalor, afraid to move for even a minute or two in case we materialise in that moment and they miss us. It literally broke my heart to imagine this poor old man, on his own and shacked up somewhere between the hours of 10pm and 6am- just waiting and hoping for someone to come out and save him.
So in that moment I had to grit my teeth, take a deep breath and remind myself that this is simply the reality we are faced with, and this is the system we have to work within. There are too many needy people, too many people without anywhere to call home, and we don’t have the resources or the manpower to house all of them.
In that moment, despite the fact that I felt as sh***y and useless as I’ve felt in quite a while, and despite the fact that the man’s expression of incredulous disbelief seemed to be right on the ball, I forced myself to remember that I was one of the good guys, I was out there trying to help out.
We help people off the streets every day, and we work with them to keep them safe and improve their situations and potential for good futures; we make a difference.
It really didn’t feel like that in the moment though.