When was the last time you walked past a person who is homeless? Today? Yesterday? Last week? Or maybe you walked past someone because you were invested in your smartphone or listening to music. Chances are you will encounter a person who is homeless in the near future.
17:10, Monday 10th October, Market Place, Wokingham town centre. It's cloudy, there's a chill in the air. I'm 100 metres from home and I approach a man sat on the ground with a sleeping bag over his legs. He looks cold and tired. As I walk towards him, he wishes me a nice day. I stop and ask him if he would like a hot drink. He seems taken aback - like he wasn't expecting it.
48 hours later, I couldn't walk past again. I sat on the cold hard pavement next to him and we shared a hot beverage. And we talked. Time flew as we got to know each other; this was not conversation driven by pity from one party to another but two people talking about, well, stuff! His name is Ian, 35 years old. I learned a bit about his past and how he got to where he was today; I talked about myself, my passions and interests. He shared a cookie that he had been given earlier that day with me. Out of respect I took this offering. We talked about football and what Wokingham town centre was like. Ian told me about the jobs that he has had in the past, the fact that he wanted to try and save for a little bedsit and try and get work.
Before I knew it 50 minutes had past and rain had started falling. I wished Ian well as he moved to a sheltered spot and I ended up heading home. A seemingly taken for granted luxury that 3 days previously I never really thought about: Shelter, warmth, comfortable seating. Food, drink and lavatorial facilities on demand. Why have I been chosen to live this fortunate life whilst others; good people are dealt a less favourable hand.
Any man, woman or child who has to spend a single night without a roof over their head is one too many and when I started to read into the statistics; they are quite astonishing.
In 2014/15, there were 7,581 people sleeping rough in London alone (1). Between 1st October - 30th November in 2015, on any one night 3,569 people slept rough in England(2). The United Kingdom has the 5th biggest economy in the world and yet in the latest financial year (2015/2016) over 1.1 million three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis by Trussell Trust foodbanks (3).
How can we tackle this? Well maybe we need to understand how we got into this situation to work out how to get out of it. I am not going to get into a political finger pointing exercise, but I feel that issue, along with subjects such as reforming the NHS - put the politics aside and put heads together. I don't want to know that the lives of people that find themselves without a home or in poverty could be bettered or worsened by whichever party is in power. Too many times politicians use these issues to score points against the other and I'm fed up of it. These are issues that affecting hundreds and thousands of people's lives and what I want to see is a collaborative effort to end poverty, to end homelessness and to improve the already brilliant NHS.
But what can one man do? Am I just a delusional optimist that believes that I can see change in my lifetime? That's an achievable goal isn't it? Ending poverty and homelessness in the 5th biggest economy in the world? To me that doesn't sound too hard, and until people in power sit down and talk to those and who are in poverty, who are living on the streets. I don't know how it could resonate any harder. More than 150,000 young people ask for help with homelessness each year (4) which is just unbelievable in this day and age. How good a feeling would it be to get to a point where no person, young or old, woman or man, has to go through the suffering of being homeless, because one day, one night on the streets without a roof over your head is too much.
I don't know what the answer is. Affordable housing? Rent control? More hostels and available rooms? Maybe help invest in social services so that you can tackle the route cause before a situation arises were a person is without a home. I don't know, I'm just a hopeless idealist who wants to end things that shouldn't be occurring in 2016. This generation can do special things and I know we will see many fantastic feats in the coming years. Eradicating poverty and homelessness would be one of the biggest achievements of our time, but as the stats suggest, we need to act now.
I hate the label homeless. It's like saying you're dyslexic, a smoker, he's depressed or she's bipolar. Labels de-humanize the person you're talking about and whilst, by default, they describe an aspect of someone's life, there is a person underneath that label.
For now, I will keep saying hello to Ian, buy him hot beverages and talk to him. Because he is not a statistic. He is a human being.
Don't let anything define you, and don't define anyone by anything.
(1) Chain, Annual Report - https://files.datapress.com/london/dataset/chain-reports/CHAIN%20Greater%20London%20full%20report%202014-15.pdf
(2) Street counts and estimates of rough sleeping in England, Autumn, 2010 - 2015 -https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/503020/Rough_Sleeping_Autumn_2015_Table_1.xls
(3) Trussell Trust, Latest Stats: https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/
(4) Centre Point, Youth Homelessness, the Issue - https://centrepoint.org.uk/youth-homelessness/the-issue/Suggest a correction