A recent BBC report details the outrageous comments of Labour councillor and Oxford city council executive board member, John Tanner.
I won't repeat his comments about Oxford's homeless population in full here because quite frankly I don't think they deserve much more space on the Internet, but just to give you a hint...
Tanner started off with some moronic remark about tourists not wanting to see homeless people when they visit Oxford. Well. Heaven forbid that the travel-privileged few should see the city for what it really is: a modern place with modern people and their modern struggles. Sorry, but it's not just some fantasy Harry Potter playground where poncey students float about in gowns all day (OK, some do, but usually they're the freshest of the fresh-faced 'freshers' and the novelty soon wears off).
Tanner also stated he would like to 'go up to some of these rough sleepers and say "you are a disgrace".' I won't hesitate for a second in saying that I consider the only disgrace here to be Tanner. But let's move on. With an imperfect claim as to causality, Tanner then points the finger of blame at the government. If the government didn't cut benefits, people wouldn't be on the street in Oxford. Or so his logic goes.
In the face of well-deserved criticism from the Green Party, Tanner later apologised and added: 'I was quite wrong to imply that it was in any way the fault of the beggars.'
I'm sure we are all grateful for that remorseful and heartfelt apology.
That nonsense aside, what really upset me about that story is that it's not the first time I've heard comments like that about Oxford's homeless population, and it probably won't be the last. Here's just one example:
I was having coffee after lunch in college one day. Now, I'm very fortunate to be a member of one of the friendlier, more liberal and more egalitarian colleges in Oxford. For the most part, the individuals in my college are warm, caring and lovely people (one of the few exceptions being the chap who once thought it appropriate to click his fingers an inch or two away from my face to get my attention).
Yet even there, in what I thought was one of the few true safe havens for humane folk who genuinely give a shit about people, I overheard this piece of asininity: 'Oh we have an annoying problem. Apparently, all the students are complaining that they can hear that vagrant begging outside when the library windows are open. There must be something we can do to remove it.'
I was enraged at the time (still am now, actually) and ended up leaving my desperately-needed coffee behind because I couldn't stand to be around their moaning.
Anyway, let me tell you about 'It'.
'It' is now a good friend of mine. Let's just call him Jack. He's about 40, has a cracking not-from-Oxford accent, sparkly blue eyes, and is normally always smiling.
Jack and I first met one freezing winter's morning in 2013. Unfortunately, this was a day when he wasn't smiling. As I walked into college, I passed him as he was pulling a patchy blanket around himself while the bitter winds whipped up the last of the autumn leaves in his doorway. The cold had left his hands red raw and covered in chilblains. I said, 'Good morning!' (as I do to most people I see on mornings when I'm feeling particularly sprightly), and he croaked a meagre '... good morning' back. 'Do you fancy a coffee, mate?' I asked. He nodded, then started to cry.
Still in tears, he explained how he had been sat outside for about three hours that morning and had gotten so frustrated by the fact that he had said 'hello' to several people and the most they had done was nod or mumble some sort of 'sorry' back at him. I rolled my eyes and pulled a 'F*** that.' face in what I now realise was a rather pathetic attempt at cheering him up, then asked if he wanted milk and sugar.
When I returned with our coffees, I asked if he fancied a chat. He said he did. For the next twenty minutes, we sat together on the frost-covered pavement and cradled our cups of steaming hot coffee. We talked about how hurtful people can be sometimes, even when they say nothing at all, and then - changing the topic - about Sir Terry Pratchett's books. Not that I really had much to say about them. Jack absolutely loves Pratchett; I'm ashamed to say I've never read any of his work. At the end of my lesson in all things Discworld, he made some tongue-in-cheek remark about me being a wimp for shivering (it was below freezing!), thanked me for the coffee, and sent me on my way.
Ever since then, I've seen Jack most mornings and afternoons when I'm in Oxford. Sometimes I bring him coffee, sometimes lunch, sometimes a can of something fizzy (which he always teases me about, because once I moaned about my teeth hurting after drinking Coca Cola). Sometimes we sit together and put the world to rights, sometimes he laughs at me as I scutter on by and moan about having too much to do.
One afternoon, when thankfully the weather was much warmer, I mentioned that I was going to the supermarket and asked if he fancied anything. Fifteen minutes later, I came back arms laden with his order: a couple of cans of pop, a strawberry and vanilla yoghurt (and I wasn't to forget the spoon, which the shop provides near the tills), a packet of fig rolls, and a few other bits and pieces. We got into a giggle fit as he took the items from my arms one by one in a Jenga-like fashion as I tried in earnest not to drop everything (I've no idea why I didn't take a carrier bag at the shop when I was offered one... probably because I said 'No, thanks!' without really thinking and am far too British [read: socially awkward and stubborn] to appear to have a need to change my mind afterwards).
In exchange for the supermarket haul, Jack offered to help me to fix my bike, and after talking about his latest Pratchett read, he said he wanted to tell me something. "Go on..." I said. He pointed out that I'd never asked him why he was on the street. I paused, then admitted that I had wondered why but didn't really see it as any of my business. He paused too. Then he told me his story.
The conversation that followed changed just about everything I thought I knew about homelessness. I like to think I was pretty socially-aware and quite well-educated about these things at the time, but his story - which is not mine to retell - opened my eyes to the deep-rooted and highly-institutionalised problems that not only lead people to a life on the streets, but - more concerningly - keep them there.
The average person gets sold the story that homelessness is all about drug-addictions and bad decisions and that the help is there for people if they really want it. We get told that homelessness is something that just needs to disappear, but all that means is that homeless people just need to disappear. That's not how we should be thinking and talking about human beings.
In fact, it's the same discredited 'If only they'd help themselves...' crap that generations before us got sold about other groups of people living in other types of poverty. We are way off the mark with that kind of understanding, and attitudes like those displayed by our ever-charitable Mr Tanner do absolutely nothing but poison the next generation with the same attitudinal malaise in the face of human vulnerability and adversity.
Now, I don't claim for a second that I have an answer for the 'problem' of homelessness in Oxford, and I'm of course aware that me bringing a cup of coffee and a packet of fig rolls along to brighten an afternoon certainly won't help in the long run. But I do know that changing our attitudes will.
Homelessness is a much more complex and ingrained social concern than most of us give it credit for. We need to realise this as a collective, and we need to face up to the fact that the struggles of our neighbours and friends won't be addressed if we continue to allow our out-of-date and patently ignorant attitudes to dominate our conversations.
Anyway... that's my 'disgraceful' pal Jack and that's what he taught me. Maybe he is someone to think about the next time we pretend to receive a call just as we walk past someone on the street, the next time we've 'spent all of our change on the bus', or the next time we elect to remain ignorant of the important role we all have to play in true and meaningful social change.