The Blog

We Need to Challenge Perceptions of Homelessness

2014 brought a multitude of perspectives regarding the homeless in the UK from the spikes installed outside London shops and flats to deter rough sleepers to the efforts of high profile celebrities such as Ellie Goulding helping out at soup kitchens over the Christmas period. The question remains as to whether there has been a shift in the public's perception of homeless people.

People can become homeless for a plethora of reasons; the breakdown of relationships, redundancy, mental health and more recently in the capital due to the rising costs of owning and renting property. One reason for homelessness that is often cited and impacts on the public's view is the use of drugs and drug addiction. The charity Homeless Link interestingly says that 26 in every 100 homeless people use drugs compared to the 72 in every hundred who suffer from a mental health problem. More homeless people suffer from mental health issues than take drugs yet the overriding consensus is that the majority of homeless people do the latter.

Jack Landesman is a 24-year-old ex-homeless man living in London. When asked what he thought about public perceptions to rough sleepers he said: "I think that the majority of people view the homeless as subhumans who they'd rather not acknowledge in any way." Many people do not want to give beggars money on the street out of fear that their donation will be spent on the beggar's drug habit.

"Many people turn to drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine as an escape from a life that's very lacking the first place or as a result of experiencing trauma or abuse. People do not take pity on addicts because they don't understand that addiction is an illness and one they can't just stop at the drop of a hat."

Founder of the homeless charity Streetlytes, Rudi Richardson agrees that attitudes to homelessness are still overall negative. "I think that public perceptions are still very distant and non-engaging." He says. He acknowledges the use of social media as a platform to rally about the causes and effects of homeless but says that "Social media and its participants are like arm chair revolutionaries- never really getting out there and talking, feeding or listening to the homeless." Mr Richardson himself became homeless due to drug addiction and mental illness. "I would wind up places people wouldn't even dream about. Once I was correctly diagnosed as bipolar I could see how its effects literally wore me out, both mind, body and soul." He says that "With support, nurturance and non-shaming safe direction, I have recovered".

According to Homeless Link's Needs to Know Report of 2014, 45% of homeless people have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. Research indicates that more homeless people suffer from mental health problems than drug abuse issues. While Jack Landesman says that "A lot of times the drugs cause the mental health issues", Richardson says that people's reluctance to help is "simply because of ingrained fears". He elaborates "I've seen volunteers who are initially fearful when engaging the homeless, but later find out that the homeless person has similar feelings and life experiences and this is the beginning of a proper dialogue and engagement on a visceral level."

It is often the symptoms of homelessness that are targeted and criminalised with the issues behind it going unaddressed by society and the authorities. Charities such as Crisis and Shelter take on the work of combating these issues with the provision of resources and education. Mr Richardson's charity 'Streetlytes' was set up whilst being while he was a beneficiary of St Mungo's in 2006. He says that "Streetlytes is keenly aware of the vicious cycle of the "un-housed state of mind and self." He says "The streetlytes team can identify with the feelings of loneliness, despair and apathy of the homeless person as their physical, mental and emotional unmanageability are keenly discernable in light of our own experiences." He argues that through direct engagement barriers are broken down and constructive channels of communication can be established.

With hidden homelessness on the rise perhaps perceptions will change in the coming years. In Crisis' 2011 report 'The Truth about Hidden Homelessness' they define the term as one that " used to describe people on the margins of homelessness- those who are precariously housed in insecure and unsatisfactory conditions." Hidden homelessness just as traditional homelessness can be experienced for many reasons and by all manner of people. Increasingly it is happening to the average family who can no longer afford to live in gentrified towns with rising expenses under a cloud of austerity measures.

In a 2014 report Crisis state "We need a new approach to homelessness that puts people at its centre and recognises housing as only one part of the solution. We need to ensure that homeless people are given help to overcome problems such as drug addiction and mental ill health, afforded a real chance to reskill and sustain a job, and the opportunity to reintegrate into mainstream society." Their mission is clear as is the invaluable work carried out by volunteers what we the public, the people, need to consider is our own role in challenging perceptions of vulnerable people.