Every single day we walk past a handful of London's 7,000+ people who sleep on our streets. Our homeless neighbours. Yet every day, although we may feel sympathy, we keep walking. We look the other way.
For something so impossible to ignore we are doing a brilliant, and terrible, job of ignoring it.
We, the founders of CRACK + CIDER: shop for the homeless, wanted to do something to change this. We wanted to give people a way to help that didn't involve handing over cash on the streets: something which people had told us "makes [them] feel wary and uncomfortable".
CRACK + CIDER offers a simple solution. It's a shop where you can buy from a selection of items which are then given to rough sleepers in the city: helping to keep them a little warmer and drier through the cold winter months.
When we started this project we knew very little about the realities of homelessness and so we turned to a number of experts to understand the current context. We are still learning about this complex issue but here are some of the most interesting, and shocking, things we have discovered so far:
We met a local shelter, Shelter from the Storm, to investigate which products would be most useful for homeless people. After speaking with the founder we were told that the planned recipients of these products are a different "kind" of homeless to those who sleep in the shelter, and that in fact, there are different levels of homelessness.
We discovered that although charities often use the image of the "rough sleeper" to inspire donations, more often than not, they are servicing the needs of another "level" of the homeless community.
A rough sleeper contacted us via email to confirm this point: "Thanks for noticing that RoughSleepers & Homeless are not the same."
We were advised that helping those who are currently in shelters would be a better use of our time, and after investigating further, we were shocked at the lack of support for those sleeping on our streets.
Although we knew that our project couldn't solve rough sleeping, we decided we wanted to do our bit to help this community who "feel ignored and invisible".
Although governments and NGO's often campaign for jobs and healthcare for the homeless; "housing first" is "a proven policy that eradicates homelessness." (Stephen Robertson, CEO, The Big Issue).
"House them first and then put in the support network."
With this in mind, the shocking truth of homelessness is that it could be solved overnight. England has enough empty properties to house all of the country's rough sleepers.
We need to find a way to provide accommodation where people "can sleep safely with both eyes closed" (Paul Williams, CRI). Sleeping on the streets leaves you "very vulnerable to crime" (John, Streets Kitchen) and therefore significantly worsens the effect.
It is perhaps no surprise that there is a huge opportunity to prevent homelessness through early intervention based on identifying behavioural issues.
"Over 40% of those on the streets also ran away as a child: the concept of absenting oneself at a time of crisis is learned early in life" (Paul Williams, CRI) and therefore, healthcare intervention at an earlier stage could significantly reduce the prevalence of homelessness.
This is, of course, a long term approach that feeds into the need for the UK to address the extreme lack of investment in mental healthcare: Councils spend just 1% of their budget on preventing mental health problems (Mind, 2015). When you take into account that homeless people are seven times more likely to wind up in A+E than those that are not homeless, more investment in mental health could in fact reduce costs to the NHS in the longer term.
Community over Government
Finally, with the current Government in power it is widely thought that "if you're waiting for the big boys you'll be waiting forever," (Paul Williams, CRI): this leads us to ponder on an alternative group to address the problem.
At CRACK + CIDER, we believe that there is a huge opportunity to engage a younger audience who will use their passion to create other community projects such as C+C.
Stephen Robertson commented; "when there are projects from young people taking initiative and doing something [about homelessness] it's very powerful: it gets a whole new group of people engaged and it makes people challenge what they think homelessness is."
We really hope that our small project goes on to inspire others to do even greater, more impactful things. Together, and only together, we can make a difference.
If you would like any advice or guidance on setting up your own project please reach out, we'd be delighted to help.
CORRECTION: This blog previously attributed the quote 'Sleeping on the streets leaves you "very vulnerable to crime" and therefore significantly worsens the effect' to Big Issue's Stephen Robertson